Day of the Dead: Celebrating Lives Past and Present
Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, celebrates the lives of those who came before. It reminds the living to reflect on what we value, to honor departed loved ones, and to create new memories with friends and family. Altars commemorate the lives of friends, family, celebrities, victims and heroes. Colorful masks, costumes, dancing and music are all part of the pageantry. Milwaukee will celebrate the event with exhibits at Latino Arts and at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts (WPCA) and at the second annual Día De Los Muertos parade on Oct. 28. The parade, organized by the Milwaukee Mijas collective, will beginning at Latino Arts and end at WPCA.
WPCA will mount its 19th annual Día de los Muertos exhibition. The arts center will display ofrendas (altars/offerings) created by local artists of various backgrounds and present a live performance by Aztec dancers. The opening reception, on Gallery Night, 5-9 p.m. Oct. 21, will feature music at 6 p.m., a live performance by Omeyocan Dance Company at 7 p.m. and spoken word at 8 p.m.
The Catholic Church has long known that conversion comes easier when people can retain their important traditions; thus, holidays predate most holy days laid over them. Not by coincidence do we celebrate Easter with eggs and rabbits just as the first spring shoots emerge from the ground. Likewise, many cultures remember and honor the dead around harvest time; in America and Europe, Halloween and All Soul’s Day stem from this tradition. Día de los Muertos has its roots in pre-Columbian culture. Overlaid with Christian symbols and beliefs, the holiday migrated to the US along with people from Mexico. It continues to evolve and blend ancient traditions and contemporary ideas from both cultures.
Jose Chavez, a local artist and curator of the WPCA exhibit, grew up celebrating the Day of the Dead in Michoacán, where he learned the traditions from his elders. He has also researched regional variations in Mexico, especially Oaxaca. He has become an expert at crafting paper mache figures and sugar skulls. His colorful skeletons currently enliven the front window at WPCA.
Chavez is careful to point out that the altars are not for worship, but to honor and celebrate the lives of those who came before. In Mexico the holiday is held on All Saints or All Souls day in early November, a time when God is said to allow departed souls to visit. Traditions vary throughout Mexico, but include cleaning, caring for cemeteries, cooking, bringing food and drink for the dead, and throwing a party.
“We don’t take death seriously,” Chavez explains.
Each altar is as unique as the person to whom it is dedicated and the artist who creates it. But ofrendas must have the four elements: water, earth, wind and fire. Common motifs are religious symbols; images of the deceased and of saints; flowers, especially marigolds, bright yellow to light the way; salt from the earth; water to quench thirst; bread to satisfy hunger; candles to guide souls on their journey, purifying flames representing faith; papel picado, cut paper that moves in the wind; and copal incense lifting prayers to heaven, inviting loved ones back home. Other offerings represent the lives of the people honored: Things shaped by their hands, tools they used, photos from youth and old age, and symbols of trades, traditions, and passions.
Day of the Dead promises to offer a lively set of events to the Milwaukee public, starting at WPCA on Gallery night and on the two following Fridays. The parade is set for 5 p.m. Oct. 28; Latino Arts will host a Day of the Dead reception on Nov. 4. For more information about Day of the Dead events, visit Latino Arts, Milwaukee Mijas, and Walker’s Point Center for the Arts.