El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a joyful, Mexican celebration of life and remembrance of those who have passed. Its present-day form – which originated from Aztec roots in Mexico and later transformed into a Catholic celebration after the Spanish conquest – is celebrated in many parts of the world (including here in the U.S.) around All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.
This year I had the opportunity to volunteer and partner with local downtown business leaders in planning our city’s first-ever Dia de los Muertos Festival, which featured an outdoor community altar. The day was full of good energy, people enjoying traditional food like pan de muertos and hot chocolate, and entertainment including a procession, a bilingual children’s choir, a Mariachi band and a Columbian dance performance. A local bilingual Chicano poet did a reading and led us in the native traditional calling of the “Four Directions” while burning sage as an offering to our ancestors. Each of the Four Directions – North, South,East and West – symbolize an element, like air, fire, water and earth.
I am especially proud of how our community – at times mocked for our preoccupation with being politically correct – comes together and embraces different cultures in our community. I wonder what effect the excessive concern with offending various groups of people has on the experience and richness of many beautiful traditions. Some people came to the festival because they were simply curious, other came seriously prepared with altar offerings.
In Mexico, they build altars at the cemetery. These images show our altar being built at an outdoor plaza downtown.
This holiday has always been one I’ve looked forward to. An excellent source of information about Day of the Dead can be found at this NPR article that decodes its many traditional symbols and provides some history. For example, it explains that papel picado – the bright colored tissue paper hanging over the altars and streets – symbolizes wind and the fragility of life. You can also read my post on a beautiful El Dia de los Muertos art exhibit I visited here.
I am half Mexican – my father was Mexican-American and he grew up in a Spanish-speaking home – but we never celebrated this at home. But I still feel a deep connection to it. We don’t need to talk about death in whispers on El Dia de los Muertos. Instead we celebrate the lives of those who have passed and call out to their spirits by placing their photos and favorite items on an altar. They feel alive that day, and maybe they are there, shouting, as we did with Poet Francisco Alarcon, “Viva la Vida!” “Viva la Vida!” – “Viva la Vida!” “Long Live Life!”
While I left my ofertas on the altar – some photos, a rose for my gardening papi, an old Italian lira coin for my friend and Italian travel companion who left us too soon- my mementos joined so many more photos and items left by others throughout the day. There were pets and grandparents and young people. Everyone had their own story. They were part of the day. They are part of our lives. On the altar. And on the plaza, laughing, dancing, talking with each other. A beautiful moment of shared humanity.