The Importance of Memory: What Día de los muertos can teach “Preservation”

A Día de los muertos altar.(Travis S., Flickr, Creative Commons)

A Día de los muertos altar. (Photo: Travis S., Flickr, Creative Commons)

The holiday Día de los muertos, or Day of the Dead, is Mexico’s largest holiday import to the United States and most colorful entry point into Mexican culture. The Day of the Dead festivities center around the family altar which pays memory to loved ones past. Based in pre-Columbian traditions with a healthy amount of Catholic iconography, the Day of the Dead reveres death as a part of life, holding the memory of those no longer with us by celebrating their memory on Earth.

It’s this spirit of memory and acknowledgement of passing that historic preservationists and the broader preservation movement requires. The task of preservation can be framed by two main challenges:

  1.     protecting our heritage, or memory, of those that come before us;
  2.     and, (when applied) teaching how our heritage matters to the lives we live today.

Preservationists are great at “protecting” the idealized parts of our history, namely, the architecturally unique elements of our built environment. It’s in this second “teaching” challenge many preservationists fail to fully perform, and in so doing, argue ruthlessly for ways to address to the first challenge as if it were the only preservation issue.

Día de los muertos embodies this second challenge by living its solution. How do we teach about the importance of our past, the importance of shared memories, the importance of death in life? By celebrating and acknowledging all of our history. And, more exactly for preservation, celebrants of Día de los muertos are not afraid to approach remembering the more somber elements of passing, indeed, death itself. A change of thinking is required.

Michael Allen’s work in Northside St. Louis and East St. Louis, Illinois exemplifies this change in thinking Día de los muertos encourages. As recently reported by the Preservation Leadership Forum, Allen points to the National Register criteria as an impediment to acknowledging truly historic buildings. He advocates for less prescriptive criteria for “eligibility” of historic buildings for entry into the country’s premier public history record.

In particular, Allen refers to urban renewal as one of the main reasons for why large parts of these

Daniel Ronan and friend Daniel posing front of a Mexican revolutionaries mural in Pilsen, a historic Latino neighborhood in Chicago. (Photo: Daniel Ronan)

Daniel Ronan and friend Daniel posing in front of a Mexican revolutionaries mural in Pilsen, a historic Latino neighborhood in Chicago. (Photo: Daniel Ronan)

neighborhoods are considered ineligible for the National Register. With an area missing so many threads of the historic built fabric, it may seem to the passerby a street or neighborhood is not historic. In reality, uncovering this seemingly lack of built history is just the point – it’s often in asking the question of what’s not there that divulges the more complete historical narrative. How can one easily tell about this narrative with no reminders of its remnants however scarce?

It’s here where preservationists need to stop obsessing over “protecting” and start thinking about how best to support “teaching” about the importance of how heritage matters. By assuming only “complete” neighborhoods “with surrounding context” matter, advocates for preservation are neglecting to tell history with all of its chapters. In omitting these chapters, what perseveres are the fortunate stories of people with means and notoriety, without the background that can help enhance understanding and telling of these stories by widening the breadth of the historical record.

The United States tends to approach death sullenly, begrudgingly, and fearfully, much like how the preservation field seemingly wishes not to acknowledge history for what it is – twisted, unjust and painful as much as it is promisingly beautiful, rich, and “historically significant.” May Día de los Muertos provide a cross-cultural reminder for preservationists, historic preservation, our resilient heritage, is lived by acknowledging the full story. With this full story, protecting the narratives we both can and cannot see and teaching how these narratives matter will empower us to create a more purposeful future bedrocked by our fully informed knowledge of our whole past.