Today is Dia de los Muertos. While my family does not celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the importance of this holiday to so many Catholics—especially so many Catholics living in the United States—makes it a day of importance to me as well.
Inspired by the example of those for whom today is a day of remembering and honoring their beloved dead, I am thinking a lot about our collective memory not just as Catholics but also as persons living in the United States. I am thinking about what it would look like for the Church to truly embody Metz’s desire for it to be the institutional bearer of the dangerous memory not just of Christ’s crucifixion, but also of the suffering of the living and the dead. I am thinking about how we should be accountable to the memory not just of those whose names we knew, but also of those whose names have been forgotten and all but erased from consciousness. What would it mean for the Church to be a body that remembers those whom the “official” histories of progress and patriotism forget? To be a body that remembers the “crucified peoples” of history? On Dia de los Muertos, I think it is especially important to ask these questions in light of the nearly forgotten fact of the lynching of Mexican-descended persons at the hands of white mobs and governmental bodies. We have forgotten both that this happened and that such events were vitally important to the establishment both of U.S. borders and of U.S. identity. Even worse, we have forgotten how much these victims of lynching resemble the suffering of Christ on the cross.
It would be beyond the scope of this post to chronicle the history of such lynchings in full. My aim here will therefore be merely to provide a brief outline of this forgotten segment of U.S. and Catholic history. Between 1848 and 1928 white mobs in the American southwest lynched at least 597 Mexicans. Certainly, the overall number of Mexicans who died in this way is much smaller than the number of African-Americans who were victims of lynching: in between 1882 and 1930, at least 3,386 African-Americans were lynched. However, it is important to note that Mexican-Americans faced an equal and sometimes even greater risk of being lynched than did African-Americans. In between 1880 and 1930, the period in the South in which mob violence was most prominent, the highest lynching rate for African-Americans was found in Mississippi at 52.8 victims per 100,000 population. This is a truly ghastly statistic that is inconceivably surpassed by the suffering of Mexicans living in the Southwest: according to scholarly estimates, at an earlier time in American history, 1848 to 1879, the time of “the Wild West,” Mexican-Americans were lynched at a rate of 473 per 100,000 of population.
As with the lynching of African-Americans in the south and Midwest, the lynching of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest was done with tacit approval from and sometimes even outright cooperation with the police. In both cases, the victims were murdered to serve as a type of example to other African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, a way to keep people in their place, a way to assert the unquestioned dominance of white power. In both cases, the message sent by whites to was clear: this land is our land; if you continue to live here, you will do so only on our terms. Certainly, this sounds hauntingly familiar to the way that crucifixion functioned in ancient Rome. Like Jesus, these victims were mutilated, tortured, and left to rot. Also like Jesus, they were not considered worthy even of burial.
Metz implores us to remember the suffering not just of the dead but also of the living. He points to the way that the dangerous memories can interrupt and subvert the oppressive regimes of the present. Today, we should not just remember Mexican victims of white lynch mobs, we should also look at our present day racial situation in light of these memories. In other words, we should be disturbed. We should look at Arizona 1070 as more of the same horrible past that came before. We should look at the Florida bill that would give police permission to question anyone they had a reasonable suspicion to believe was in the country without papers, unless this person is from one of 32 Western European nations and one of 4 Asian nations (Singapore, South Korea, Brunei, or Japan) as a continuation of the same old struggle to impose and maintain white supremacy.
Let us be both haunted and disturbed.