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Day of the Dead – or Dia de los Muertos – is often celebrated with altars draped in marigolds and dotted with sugar skulls. But beneath those colorful displays lies significant meaning.
Dr. Mathew Sandoval, Honors Faculty Fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus, has been researching the meaning of Day of the Dead observances. He shared his research in the fall 2020 Drescher Lecture presented by Barrett Honors College via Zoom on October 7. About 80 people attended the lecture.
The event also featured Dr. Joseph O’Neill, Honors Faculty Fellow at the Barrett Tempe campus, who spoke about his research on the Aeneid.
The Drescher Lecture series is made possible by an endowment from the Mulzet family that began in 2000. The Sol and Esther Drescher Endowed Development Fund was established by Susan Drescher-Mulzet and Mark Mulzet to sponsor research opportunities for Barrett Honors College Faculty Fellows.
Sandoval used Drescher funds for research into Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Los Angeles, Calif. He is working on a documentary film about the topic.
O’Neill used funds to research interpretations of the Aeneid, the Roman epic T.S. Eliot called ‘the classic of Europe.’ He also is currently working on an edited volume of essays with Honors Faculty Fellow Adam Rigoni on the contemporary deployments of the Aeneid.
He will teach a one-credit HON394 course in the spring semester about the appropriation of classics by white supremacists that will be informed by his Drescher-funded research. He hopes to teach a three-credit upper division course on the same topic in the fall of 2021.
"Here's the story that I want to tell about Day of the Dead," Sandoval said, as he played a sizzle reel of the documentary he's producing about Dia de los Muertos celebrations on Olvera Street and at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, both in Los Angeles.
"Day of the Dead is an ancient technology designed to help us stay connected to ancestors through reverence," he said. "Day of the Dead is an ancient technology designed to help us heal the wounds that come from losing those we love."
"Dia de los Muertos is more than a religious holiday," Sandoval said. "It's more than a cultural tradition. And it's certainly more than a Disney representation."
His lecture was presented at the perfect time, in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15.
Sandoval has a personal tie to Dia de los Muertos. After losing his father to suicide, Sandoval said he embraced the traditions of Day of the Dead, which helped him turn away from following down the same dark path.
"It's medicine," he said.
He then gave the audience a brief history of how public Day of the Dead celebrations came about in the U.S.
According to Sandoval, while the nine-day Dia de los Muertos has been celebrated by Mexican-Americans in the privacy of their homes for at least a century, the first public celebration was in 1973. It grew out of the Chicano movement when Mexican-Americans were fighting for their human and civil rights and began questioning how to define themselves and revitalize their culture.
"Boiling down into the American melting pot also meant losing your culture," Sandoval explained.
Sandoval said the celebrations really took off and became popular in the 80s and 90s due to several factors, including immigration patterns that led to an influx of Latinos in the U.S.; the North American Free Trade Agreement that brought many goods from Mexico and Central America, including Day of the Dead products; and more museum exhibits and scholarly publications about Day of the Dead.
Pop culture also contributed to the popularization of Day of the Dead celebrations, thanks to the comic book “The Aztec Zombie”, Sandoval said.
Sandoval said Day of the Dead celebrations at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery were almost carnival-esque, while those on Olvera Street were more traditional.
"What struck me about Dia de los Muertos in Olvera Street is it's very grounded in rituals," he said, describing some of the many rites and ceremonies that take place.
O’Neill sought to answer the question, “What is the contemporary relevance of the Greek classics, particularly the Aeneid?”
O'Neill explored what the Aeneid can tell contemporary American readers about the role of art and artists in shaping lasting discourses about events of national significance, through an analysis of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“Many Barrett faculty teach the Aeneid in the Human Event and in History of Ideas,” O’Neill said. “And although the contemporary relevance of the poem is often asserted by classic scholars and by teachers of the so called Great Books courses alike, there to-date hasn't really been a scholarly working out of the answer to the questions why and in what ways does the Aeneid still matter.”
“This question takes on special urgency at this precise moment in history when scholars and students alike, quite rightly, are asking whether texts that appear to celebrate imperialism, militarism, and colonialism deserve to retain their exalted status,” he said.
He went on to explore how different writers throughout history, such as Rudyard Kipling, interpreted the Aeneid. To the classic scholar and sensitive reader of a good, recent translation, Virgil’s poetry simply is not a celebration of militarism or empire.
"Virgil lost control of his art the moment the pages left his hands," O’Neill said, explaining how the Aeneid, which was published after Virgil died, got misinterpreted.
“Virgil's texts are deeply skeptical of Rome's imperial project and repeatedly and consistently raised to the reader's attention the enormous cost of empire. The Aeneid, if it's anything at all, is a grim catalog of the corpses that constitute Rome's foundation,” O’Neill said. “His work is deeply pessimistic, not just about empire, but about art’s power in the face of tyranny and violence.”
He explained how politically motivated selective readings of the text throughout the second millennium gave rise to the celebration of empire and the other misinterpretations of the Aeneid.
He then talked about how Virgil’s quotes are taken out of context and used in places like the 9/11 Museum. He showed the audience the quote displayed in the 9/11 Museum, and then gave context to what was happening in Virgil’s poem when that line appeared. He demonstrated how politically motivated selective reading of the Aeneid has led to quotes taken out of context and misinterpreted.
What can the Aeneid tell us about our wars, our fecklessness, our occasional mercilessness, our tendency to forget? Is the Aeneid just something lofty regardless of its context? These are the questions O’Neill sought to answer.
“So learning how to read the Aeneid anew and embracing its failures might provide some invaluable lesson in drowning out the jingoistic shouting that, by design, occludes the real and personal costs of war and nationalism,” O’Neill said.
Story by Ranjani Venkatakrishnan, a 2020 Barrett, The Honors College graduate who is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.