Altar honors U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq

By
Monday, November 7, 2005

The Mexican community and its diasporas – including Mexican and Chicano students at Brown – recently celebrated “Dia de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead, a commemoration celebrated Nov. 1-2, during which the dead are invited to enjoy the living world.

To celebrate the holiday, families build household altars that they decorate with gifts and the favorite foods and personal items of the honored dead. Legend has it that these guests can only see orange, so it’s not uncommon to see a bright orange path of marigolds leading from the cemetery to the altars. Some see this religious remembrance as one of the origins of the celebration of Halloween.

These celebrations are widespread in Mexico and in Mexican communities across the United States. At Brown, a group of Mexican and Chicano students – three undergrads and four graduate students led by Mireya Loza GS – constructed their own altar, on exhibition since Oct. 30 in Manning Hall’s vestibule.

About 40 people attended the opening of this nontraditional altar Friday. The altar was erected in honor of all U.S. soldiers who have died in the Iraq war, with a particular emphasis on the soldiers of Mexican descent. The altar specifically pays tribute to U.S. soldiers Rey David Cuervo and Jose Angel Garibay, both undocumented immigrants who were given U.S. citizenship postmortem.

The idea for the altar project originated last year when Loza viewed a collection of Mexican artifacts related to Dia de los Muertos at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. The museum provided the materials and exhibition space for the final product.

Although the students agreed that the altar’s primary purpose is to honor the U.S. casualties of the Iraq war, ultimately the project possessed “a more political twist,” said Mario Sifuentez GS.

“(Mexican immigrants) are actually dying for their new host country,” said Alma Carrillo GS. According to Carillo, the project has two sides. She said she initially wondered, “Is it about the war or is it about the border?”

The altar consists of the traditional catrin – a six-foot papier-mache skeleton – and a three-step altar. The catrin’s uniform is composed exclusively of newspaper articles on death tolls for the war that are tinted camouflage-like shades of khaki and green. Large bold headlines spread across the skeleton’s chest reading “War’s GI Tolls” and “2,000 Heroes.”

“We wanted him to look like an everyday soldier,” Loza said, pointing to the fact the catrin’s legs are bent as if in movement.

Personal items are displayed on the altar, including traditional sugar skulls by a Chicano artist from San Jose, marigold petals, votive candles with images of the Archangel Gabriel, a humorous Saint Simon depicted as a Mexican holding a bag of loot and photos of Cuervo sent by his family. The altar also formerly displayed Cuervo’s army uniform, which has been removed since the exhibition’s opening.

The exhibit’s papelpicados – cut-out cardboard motifs that usually represent birds, flowers and other joyous symbols – are grenades and handguns and hang from the sliding panel behind the altar, itself covered with bright orange marigold petals.

Most notably, a sea of green toy soldiers surrounds the altar and catrin. It is one thing to hear about distant casualties, “it’s another thing to see them in numbers,” Sifuentez said. Exactly 2,000 figurines – in honor of the more than 2,000 soldiers who have died in Iraq – fill the floor space.

Among the flood of green figurines stand a few red and yellow ones, representing soldiers of Mexican descent and undocumented immigrants respectively. These soldiers are more than 5 percent of the war’s casualties to date.

The altar’s message is not only a political one. “When the altar was finished some of us got very emotional,” Carillo said, whose brother-in-law is currently serving in Iraq. The piece also served as a reminder of the students’ origins and traditions. It gave us “the opportunity to (celebrate Dia de los Muertos) away from home,” said Joanna Serrato ’08.

The “Dia de los Muertos” altar will be on display through Thanksgiving break. The gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.