Día de los Muertos / Day of the Dead

I have always loved the Day of the Dead. At first I was attracted to the surface “bling” of this popular Mexican holiday. I love the colors, the beautifully decorated altars, paisley skulls, stylishly dressed skeletons, and people of all ages in costumes and face paint. Gradually, as my understanding expanded, my appreciation for this ancient tradition has deepened. In the Aztec and Toltec cultures, the dead were still part of the family and community, and once a year they were invited back to a party in their honor.

Families prepare altars in their homes, where the ancestors can “hang out” throughout the holiday period, which is technically 2 days, but can last for a couple of weeks. The altars are decorated with photos, flowers, candles, and favorite foods of the dearly departed. Across Mexico, on the night of Día de los Muertos, much of the population goes to graveyards for a get-together with the extremely extended family. On that night, many cemeteries appear to be quite festive. In preparation for an all-night vigil, table cloths are spread over graves, candles are lit and food laid out. Small children play until they fall asleep. The adults invite memories to come alive through stories, songs, poems and prayers.

I recently added a new layer to my understanding by attending the “Day of Remembrance Celebration” in the Martin Luther King, Jr Library. It was the first of several Day of the Dead celebrations that take place annually in Santa Clara County.

A space was set aside in the Cultural Heritage section on the 5th floor. Members of the community were invited to create altars and share their experiences. They described the offerings, their meanings, and the people they were honoring (see the slide show above). Here are some of my impressions:

  • Many immigrants are a long way from home and unable to return to the place where their ancestors are buried. But there is faith that no matter where the altar is built, the souls will respond to the invitation. Where there is love, time and distance are not obstacles.
  • Each altar was unique, but with some common threads: COLOR! Paper or fresh flowers (usually marigolds), food, photos, works of art, candles, symbolic articles, religious icons and messages. Many of the altars also included water. Apparently it’s thirsty work, traveling between the worlds of the living and the dead.
  • The belief is that, “the dead live on in the memories of the living,” and many altars contained a special candle for those souls who have no one to remember them. I find this inclusion to be very sweet. No soul left behind….
  • Two women created a beautiful altar for a local Latino artist who had been a friend and mentor to aspiring artists in San Jose. It contained many of his works, as well as a painting one of them had done in his honor.
  • San Jose State teachers and students created an altar in reverence of a professor who died unexpectedly in September. She truly was a champion of diversity and inclusion. It was fitting that she have a place of honor at this event. Working on the altar gave them a space to comfort each other while sending a unified message of love to their departed friend and peer.
  • Altars included not just family members, but others worthy of respect and honor, such as Cesar Chavez. A local community activist created an altar in remembrance of both his ancestors and some of the street people he has worked with. He included a section for those who have been killed by police. It also contained a haunting portrait of a woman who had been a member of the Toltec dancing group, in her magnificent feathered headdress.
  • A Lincoln High School teacher organized her students to create an altar honoring Frida Khalo.
  • Friends created an altar for a woman who was an animal lover and advocate. It included artistic representations of many species, and of course the mandatory “soul snacks” – a dog dish with kibbles.
  • A woman of Mexican decent and her son built an altar for her niece who had tragically died 10 years ago, at the age of 13. Her family has been in the U.S. for 100 years and she was not raised with this tradition. She was introduced to the Day of the Dead in the ‘70’s by Galeria de la Raza. She has created altars in the past, but this was the first time she had felt drawn to create an altar for her niece. As she was working with her teenage son, she found herself crying and realized that she had been holding grief for years. She experienced the truth in the saying, “La cultura cura” (culture heals).
  • Some of the altars invited community participation with baskets and note paper. People were invited to write the names of their beloved dead and let them know they are remembered. I wrote the name of my cousin, who died 4 years ago of colon cancer. As I dropped it into the basket, I felt a rush of love for her. La cultura cura
  • We heard a presentation by Mary Andrade, who is an internationally known photo-journalist. She has spent much of her career documenting the unique Day of the Dead traditions across Mexico. Her bi-lingual website: DayoftheDead.com is one of the most viewed sites on this subject in the world.

Even though the Day of the Dead is not connected to the American Halloween holiday, comparison is unavoidable. They are the same time of year and both focus on the departed, but the theme of Halloween is fear of the dead. If they do return for a night, it’s to terrorize the living – not to party with them. The dead are usually rotting corpses draped in black or grey rags – not festively dressed skeletons. Cemeteries are to be avoided at all costs – not sites of communal celebration. What happened to the Halloween dead people to make them so angry and mean? It’s a completely different crowd.

The Día de los Muertos model is more appealing to me. Whether we are in the Land of the Living or the Land of the Dead, we are not so different. We all came from the same place and we are all returning to the same place. The Day of the Dead is an annual reminder, strengthening the love and connections that sustain us all, no matter where we are on the journey.

The Art of Remembrance Altar and Visual Art Exhibit will remain on display through November 2nd at San Jose State University. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, 150 E. San Fernando Street, San Jose. There will also be additional Day of the Dead events and they can be found on the Immigrantinfo.org Community Calendar and also a link to a San Jose listing from the San Jose MultiCultural Artists Guild in the Announcements on the Home Page. If you know of an event not listed here that is free and open to the public, please send details to administrator@immigrantinfo.org.