Illuminating Humanities: Denise Meda Calderon
The Glasscock Center is excited to continue its series which highlights humanities research at Texas A&M, and the vital role played by the humanities at the university and in the world beyond the academy
For our next highlight, we invited Denise Meda Calderon, Glasscock Graduate Research Fellow, to tell us about her project on rituals of death and Day of the Dead in resisting legacies of colonialism.
Tell us a bit about your current research project.
“I am interested in how rituals of death are community-making practices that are relevant to theorizing social resistance.”
My research examines concrete articulations of death involved in resisting legacies of colonialism. In particular, I study how rituals of death are enacted by communities and thereby bolster solidarity against social and political oppression. With specific attention to rituals, understood as embodied and shared relational practices, I am interested in how rituals of death are community-making practices that are relevant to theorizing social resistance. For instance, I examine how Day of the Dead celebrations are social rituals performed by people who invoke a relationship with the dead as part of a resistant community ethic. In this vein, my project examines rituals and artworks that help us theorize altars as sites of resistance for socially oppressed groups to affirm relations between the dead and the living.
What inspired your interest in this topic, and why is this topic significant?
My interest in this topic began during my undergraduate program when I created my first communal altar. Building from my familiarity with home altars, creating a public altar for the dead was a new and powerful experience, one that I continue to practice till this day.
The practice inspired my study of Day of the Dead commemorations for a graduate course in the History Department at Texas A&M. I studied the Dia de los muertos community practices of East Los Angeles neighborhoods. This included marches against police brutality or gang violence and altar making: a practice of creating an altar with photos of loved ones, candles, and offerings of water, foods, and flowers. The practices emphasize communal and resistant dimensions of Day of the Dead celebrations, thus provoking my interest in the practices grounded in a relational and dynamic conception of death.
The topic is significant because in contemporary popular culture, Day of the Dead activities have been celebrated primarily for their aesthetic value, resulting in limited attention to the significance of death and our relationship with the dead. Thus, studying death and the communal aspects of death offers a fuller understanding of the relational dynamic of death.
What do you find rewarding in your work?
“…it has the power to articulate the knowledge that has existed among Chicanx and Latinx communities, as well as affirm the significance of death in the everydayness of the living.”
When I share my work with those who conceive of death in a relational way, I realize how significant it is to theorize the concrete and social facets of death. This approach to death carries social and epistemological significance. For instance, in discussions about death with members of the Chicanx or Mexican and Mexican American communities who celebrate Day of the Dead, I hear them express a shared relational sense of death. So, I find my work rewarding because it has the power to articulate the knowledge that has existed among Chicanx and Latinx communities, as well as affirm the significance of death in the everydayness of the living.
Why are the humanities and humanistic social sciences important to society as well as to you personally, especially in the current moment?
“Within humanities discourses, my work bridges spiritual, material, social, and historical dimensions of death. Doing so, I believe, offers an approach that can understand the social ramifications of high numbers of death in communities experiencing multiple oppressions.”
The humanities and humanistic social sciences play a crucial role to help people problem-solve, build social relations across differences, nurture curiosities, and flourish in society. However, during a time when global communities are experiencing high mortality rates due to the pandemic, the humanities and humanistic social sciences are vital in supporting how those disproportionately harmed by public health inequalities and socially engineered violence respond to death. Thus, through special attention to culture, human experience, and the arts, the humanities help address the social processes relevant to life and death.
I situate my research within the humanities to theorize interpretations of death through rituals, testimonios, and art to deepen understandings of death relevant to concrete, lived experiences. Within humanities discourses, my work bridges spiritual, material, social, and historical dimensions of death. Doing so, I believe, offers an approach that can understand the social ramifications of high numbers of death in communities experiencing multiple oppressions.
I am passionate about participating in community programs related to solidarity and empowerment. On a local level, I am involved in the Bryan/College Station area through labor workshops, migrant support programs, and cultural celebrations such as religious gatherings and food events.
I have had the opportunity to connect my passion with a Texas A&M research initiative called the Mexican Reintegration Project. We conduct a transnational study of migrant experiences since their return to Mexico from the United States, voluntarily or involuntarily. This graduate research opportunity offers resources to migrant populations and is relevant to my work in Latinx philosophy.
What are some future research projects that you are, or want to, work on?
I am interested in advancing research related to the experiences of Afro-Mexicans who have a long history in Mexico and, in recent years, the United States (largely migratory due to economic and agricultural insecurity in Mexico). It is important for more scholars to recognize how Afro-Mexicans communities combat anti-Black practices and sentiments in Mexican identity or mexicanidad. In my work, I am interested in critically engaging discourses of mexicanidad and how Afro-Mexican transnational networks challenge narrow conceptions of Mexican identity.