English Day of the Dead

While I was in school in Boston, I never really craved Tex-Mex (true proper Tex-Mex from Texas). While I was at home in Texas, I never really celebrated Dia de los Muertos or, in English, Day of the Dead. But now that I’m outside of the US, completely away from most Mexican culture, I’m yearning for both of those things.

Time Out had a couple pages in the latest issue devoted to Day of the Dead celebrations in London. In particular, there was a large festival with food, music, and plenty of sugar skulls. But because the tickets were £31.50 and it happened to be on a day I would be out of town, I looked into other options.

Day of the Dead decorations outside the British Museum. © Violet Acevedo
Day of the Dead decorations outside the British Museum. © Violet Acevedo

I found out that the British Museum was having free Day of the Dead festivities on Halloween weekend. Well, I simply couldn’t say no. I ended up dragging along a couple friends selling them on my high expectations. I mean, the description promised Mexican food, live music and performances, and large art installations. Why wouldn’t I be excited? In fact, I was so excited that we mistakenly arrived early and was left to wander the museum, waiting for the event to start.

Now that I think about it, there’s something so peculiar about having a Day of the Dead festival in the British Museum. The building is basically a palace devoted to the spoils of the country’s conquests. Back when they were an empire, the way Imperial Britain celebrated and recognized other cultures was to steal their historical artifacts and appreciate them in the comfort of a “civilized” setting. So to have a celebration of Mexican culture in this imperialist bastion is a little strange and slightly unsettling.

As the Day of the Dead event finally started, a friend and I grabbed a program and found a place in the crowd. A large, decorated skeleton towered over everyone and colorful, stylized skulls were projected on the walls around us. And then they came out: two dancers dressed as a skeletal bride and groom, standing high upon wooden stilts. The spun and tangoed around the area in a danse macabre. It was a huge crowd-pleaser.

Day of the Dead decorations. © Violet Acevedo
A skeleton towered over the Great Court. © Violet Acevedo

After these dancers shuffled to the back, new ones emerged from the audience. They wore elaborate costumes, complete with traditional jewelry and elegant feather headdresses. They gathered together and proceeded to perform repetitive dances for a solid half an hour. There was obviously meaning behind every step, every instrument, every costume but what that meaning was, was unknown. All the program said was that these performers would be “paying homage to the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico with a danza azteca.”

The novelty of the costumes and the surprise of their entrance quickly wore off. The audience got bored and started to murmur and fidget. By the end, in the conclusion of the performance, when the main dancer was attempting to say that these traditions still lived within Mexico and Mexicans, so many people were talking that I couldn’t hear his exact words.

This example reflected the general reaction of the crowds to the whole event. I got the impression that people there were, not contemptuous, but not entirely respectful. Some of them were truly curious, but others were only faintly interested in the novelty. I had the feeling that, to them, Mexico was so far away, and Mexican culture was so exotic that it didn’t seem entirely real.

I guess this is a good time to say that I’m a quarter Mexican. I never identified as a Mexican, but I can’t deny that its part of my heritage, however faintly I am connected to it. So I’m in an awkward position where I don’t know much about Mexican culture myself, but I get slightly offended when others are completely ignorant. (It’s a byproduct of being part of America, the land of immigrants and mutts.) This feeling has only increased the farther and farther away from Texas I get. So it’s safe to say, that while I understood why people were reacting the way they did at that festival, I still didn’t find it exactly comforting.

"The Hour of the Wolf" performance piece. © Violet Acevedo
“The Hour of the Wolf” performance piece. © Violet Acevedo

The rest of the night was a general let down. The Mexican food promised was guacamole and quesadillas, paired with imported beer and packaged margaritas. We couldn’t find where the Mexican films were playing and had to settle with a Day of the Dead inspired performance piece and a live DJ, both of which sounded cooler than they actually were. We did run into a female mariachi band, which was very entertaining and probably the only thing that lived up to the hype.

We ended up leaving early and finishing the night by eating nachos and watching The Book of Life. I really regret not experiencing Day of the Dead in Texas when I had the chance.


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