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Dia de Los Muertos Celebrates Life and Death
Friday, November 5, 2021


An altar decorated by representatives of The Hunger Coalition featured a couple boxes of Duncan Hines cake mixes and a recipe book titled “Cool Beans.”

An altar built by those behind La Cabanita Mex restaurant featured plates of rice and beans, enchiladas a glass of liquor, bread and a guitar designed to honor a beloved Mexican singer/songwriter.

And one constructed by The Alliance of Idaho featured various beverages, including Bud Light, Tecate and Coca Cola, along with traditional sweet breads, or pan dulce.

They were part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration hosted this week by the Sun Valley Museum of Art at its Hailey Center.

Dolores Vega and Giovana Vargas made 600 tamales on behalf of The Hunger Coalition, serving up cheese and chile tamales, bean tamales and chicken and pork tamales to those who came by to check out the altars, also known as ofrendas.

“This cultural tradition is muy importante,” said La Cabanita Mex restaurant’s Teresa Cervantes, through translator Jocelyn Guzman. “We always enjoy it. We feel a connection.”

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, originated thousands of years ago with the Aztec and Toltec people who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For them, death was a natural phase in life’s continuum.

They established the observance to keep the dearly departed alive in memory and spirit and they believed that their loved ones’ spirits temporarily returned to Earth during Dia de los Muertos.

The celebration was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2003. And today Mexico and Latin American countries celebrate the tradition on Nov. 1 and 2—All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar.

Cervantes said she and others living in the Wood River Valley make an altar at home, then go to the cemetery on Nov. 2 for a colorful party that includes decorating the graves of loved ones.

“We make a path to the altar and grave with petals and candles, and we put on dancing music,” said Cervantes, who grew up in Michoacan on the Western coast of Mexico where revelers often don colorful makeup, cartoonish skeleton costumes and necklaces made of shells to rouse the dead.

The altars are often decorated with items designed to represent the four elements. Pierced paper items,  known as papel picado, represent air. Beverages represent water; candles, fire, and seeds, the earth.

Some altars boast pictures of a saint or the Virgin Mary, along with photos of departed loved ones. Nearly all contain pan de muerto or the bread of the dead, and sugar skulls. Always, they feature the departed’s favorite foods and beverages to quench their thirst and satiate their hunger after the journey back. Often marigolds are scattered in front to help guide wandering souls back to their place of rest.


Cervantes and her co-workers honored a famous Mexican singer/songwriter with their altar.

“We like his singing. He’s very famous.”

Pam Parker and Candida Minino built an altar on behalf of The Community Library, using articles they found at the Gold Mine thrift store.

They honored Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet and ambassador to India who lived from 1914 to 1998 and famously said that “the purpose of poetry is to retore to mankind the possibility to wonder.”

“There is nothing sacred or untouchable except the freedom to think,” he also said, in a statement they included as part of the altar. “Without criticism, that is to say, without rigor and experimentation, there is no science, without criticism, there is no art or literature.”

Parker and Minino also honored Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century nun and poet whose image appears on Mexico’s 200 peso note. De la Cruz’s mother was illiterate but saw that her daughters were educated by providing them access to their grandfather’s library.

By 16, de la Cruz was recognized as a prodigy and gifted writer. Her personal library at the convent was considered a hallmark of her life’s achievements, but she was pressured by an archbishop to abdicate her intellectual pursuits and 4,000 books in 1693. She died of the plague two years later.

“She wrote about women’s equality and fell out of favor with the church,” said Parker, quoting de la Cruz’s statement “Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do?”

Parker said she found the exercise of building an altar broadened her understanding of the culture surrounding Dia de los Muertos: “I understand now that every object symbolizes the person whose memory you’re honoring. It’s a reflection on their lives.”

Kristin Poole, artistic director for Sun Valley Museum of Art, said the celebration was a way of establishing partnerships with the community: “The arts is a way we can celebrate and get to know one another.”


Professional pinata maker Carlos Lecanda will lead a bilingual class in the classical Mexican tradition of pinata making from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec.  4.

The class will be held at the Sun Valley Museum of Art’s Hailey classroom at 314 2nd Ave. S.

Lecanda, who is based in Mexico, will demonstrate the handcrafting of two different types of pinatas and show students how to make their own. Students will learn to make paper flowers to decorate their pinatas, even as they learn the cultural history of the pinata. Free childcare will be provided on site.

The class is open to those 16 and older; beginners are welcome.

Cost is $10 and pre-registration is encouraged at 208-726-9491 or

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