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Altar images : US Day of the Dead as political communication


This dissertation encourages a rethinking of what social scientists typically classify as "media" to include public ritual celebrations as an influential form of community- based media that enlarge the public sphere and provide important opportunities for political communication, particularly for populations with limited input and access to conventional media production. Using a mixture of ethnography, historical research, and critical textual analysis, I examine Day of the Dead events in the USA as vernacular media that communicate about identity, politics, and modernity. Within a dominant Anglo culture that has historically treated Latinos with violence and discrimination, Chicano-initiated Day of the Dead celebrations are more about communicating a Latino cultural and political presence in the US than about fulfilling moral obligations to the deceased. While many altars and events commemorate deceased friends and relatives, a large number honor popular Latino icons (e.g., artist Frida Kahlo; actor Pedro Infante) or draw attention to sociopolitical causes of death affecting the Latino community (e.g., labor abuses, immigration policies). I examine how ritual and visual culture, in combination with news and popular media coverage of the celebration, transmit messages of identity and political solidarity among Latinos of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. This research also examines commercialization as a form of communication that has affected the growth of Day of the Dead in The US, and looks at how this celebration has affected mainstream US culture. Day of the Dead is both a "residual" and "emergent" practice, as Latinos revitalize ancestral forms of social solidarity and communication while at the same time transforming them for relevancy in twenty-first century America. One of the most important implications of this dissertation is that meaningful political communication happens during activities and in places not usually recognized as "political." The examples and analyses offered demonstrate how cultural rituals can serve to inform the public and, in commemorating culture and political struggles for justice, inspire community activism

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