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Dia de los Muertos Altars, Music, Dance and Food on Tap Saturday
Friday, October 28, 2022


Children sporting faces painted in Dia de los Muertos fashion bounced up and down punching their fists in the air as the Chicano band Las Cafeteras pumped lively Chicano music into….a greenhouse, of all places.

The unique concert hall on the Bloom Community Campus served as the setting for a Dia de los Muertos celebration served up by the Sun Valley Museum of Art and The Hunger Coalition. And the Los Angeles band even had Anglo adults dancing to the energetic rhythms fueled by Mexican ukulele-sized guitars in a concert that was supposed to last a half-hour but exceeded an hour.

The lively afternoon included a chance to sample sweet buns known as Bread of the Dead or Pan de Muertos. And it enlisted adults and children alike in creating paper flower headdresses, sugar skulls and garlands as part of The Museum’s month-long series of activities meant to educate people about and celebrate the Mexican All Saints Day.

“We are all the same because we are all different,” Las Cafeteras front man Daniel Flores told the audience as he looked around a room of people wearing the band’s T-shirts, which messaged, “Yo no creo en fronteras,” or “I don’t believe in borders.”

Weeks of Dia de los Muertos events will reach a crescendo on Saturday, Oct. 29, when the Sun Valley Museum of Art partners with the Hunger Coalition to present an afternoon of music, dance and traditional Mexican food at The Museum’s Hailey House at Second Avenue South and Pine Street. The highlight will be the chance to view eight Day of the Dead altars built by community members.

One of the altars will feature paper flowers, sugar skulls, clay mementos, and other objects that community members have made in SVMoA workshops.

The event kicks off at noon. Jarabe Mexicano will perform from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. inside a heated tent on the lawn. There will be free posole and hot chocolate served by volunteers with The Hunger Coalition. And Dirce Flores’ Mexican Folkloric Dance students will perform with Jarabe Mexicano at 2:35 p.m.

The afternoon is free, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and supporters of SVMoA.

Regina Marchi, author of “Day in the Dead in the USA,” told an audience at The Community Library that it’s a misconception that Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican Halloween.

It takes place Nov. 1 and 2, which are All Saint Day and All Souls Day and it’s set aside to remember deceased loved ones. It’s a fusion of pre-Christian traditions and Catholic traditions, observed particularly in agrarian areas where celebrants create ofrendas, or offerings, from the harvest.

Mexicans often hold processions in traditional costume from church to cemetery, where they picnic, dance, play ritual games. read short poems and serenade their deceased ancestors. They also build family altars on which they place foods and drinks that their ancestors favored

Designed to welcome spirits back, the altars feature water to quench the spirits’ thirst after their  journey, family photos and a candle for each dead relative.

Incense guides the deceased to the altar and offers purification. Salt also signifies purification so the soul isn’t corrupted. Sugar skulls, part of a sugar art tradition introduced by 17th century Italian missionaries, represent departed loved ones. Paper garlands represent the wind and fragility of life.

Marigold flowers decorate the altars, designed to attract the spirits with their smell. Altars may also feature such items as knitting needles, harmonicas and other things the deceased loved. The calavera Catrina figurines—Day of the Dead’s most ubiquitous symbol meaning “elegant skull”-- were introduced by political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada to make fun of wealthy who felt they were better than others.

“Todos somos calaveras”—“We’re all skeletons,” he said noting that underneath our fancy trappings everyone is just a bundle of bones—everyone the same--no matter their social status.

Day of the Dead celebrations take different forms in different places, Marchi said. In Guatemala families fly kites made with bamboo in the belief that the high-flying kites will help ancestors find their way home.

Mexico City’s huge and colorful procession has its roots in the James Bond “Spectre” movie. The mayor of Mexico City liked what he saw so much he secured the movie props and the parade continues to this day.

The earliest known celebration of the Day of Dead in the United States took place in 1972 as a group of Chicanos decided they wanted to honor their heritage. Dia de los Muertos became a symbol of the Chicano movement, Marchi added, and Mexicans and Latinos in the United States followed suit.

“The Chicano movement started painting faces like skeletons as a fun art form. And they introduced the low rider-style, putting altars in cars,” she added.

Day of the Dead has even become commercialized, leading to Day of the Dead Barbie dolls and Day of the Dead Nike sneakers.

Asking who an altar is for gives people a chance to recount how important their beloved ones were to them, said Marchi. Now some are using altars to advance a political message or address issues like gun violence, domestic violence and human rights.

“Day of the Dead is used by therapists and grief counselors with terminally ill patients, and it’s used to help students process drive-by shootings and gang violence,” she said. “It’s meant to spur people to think about the circle of life and death, she said.

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