Text by Carole Firstman

From all around the county people gathered on Main Street in Visalia to participate in the annual “Dia de los Muertos” celebration presented by the Tulare County League of Mexican American Women. Painted faces, marigolds, sugar skulls and art filled the Garden Street Plaza, where altars for deceased loved ones were arranged and displayed. Traditional art, music, food, performances, demonstrations and craft lessons were just some of the scheduled activities for this event, a holiday to honor our ancestors and celebrate the vitality and richness of today’s community.

Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” has been celebrated in Latin America for more than 3,000 years. This party-type holiday connects the past to the present by visually illustrating a pre-Columbian, ancient and jovial view of death within the context of modern observance. It is an ancient and enduring ritual where the living commune (metaphorically) with the dead.

“This is a celebration of life,” said Virginia Arenas, local event organizer and vice president of the Mexican American League of Women. “It’s about remembering the lives of our loved ones who have passed away and honoring our ancestors. It’s about the cycle of life and death, and learning not to be afraid of death.

History of Tradition
Most strongly associated with Mexico, this festival is a hybrid holiday of sorts. It combines indigenous Aztec philosophy and religion with elements of medieval European ritual as introduced by the Spanish missionaries.
Ancient Aztec ceremonies held during the summer were mainly focused on celebrating the lives of those who had died – children, ancestors and fallen warriors. The Aztecs made altars to honor loved ones; there they placed offerings of food and small clay images that were supposed to represent the deceased.

When the Spanish missionaries arrived in the Americas during the 1500s, they brought with them All Souls’ Day, a Roman Catholic holy day that commemorates the dead. Spanish priests were quick to see a correlation between the two celebrations. As part of their efforts to convert the indigenous people to Christianity, the Aztec festival was moved from summer to fall so that it coincided with Catholic customs.

The result of this cultural blending is a modern Mexican festival with both Christian and Native American components. Contemporary festivities begin on the first of November with All Saints’ Day in which deceased children are remembered; it is believed that these children, Angelitos or “little angels,” have a special place in heaven. The second day of November, All Souls’ Day, honors the adult dead. Rest assured, Day of the Dead is not scary, spooky or somber. The spirits of the dead are thought to pay a visit to their families during these days, so it’s a time for music, dance, art and humor. You might say it’s a huge, boisterous party and everyone’s invited – living or dead.

An Eclectic Mix of Symbolic Activities
Across Mexico today, practices are fairly consistent. On the first day, families often visit the graves of their relatives. They decorate the gravesite with flowers and candles. They hold picnics at the graveside, interacting socially among themselves and with other community members who are also gathered at the cemetery.

The meals prepared for these picnics include tamales and pan de muerto, a special bread in the shape of a person. It’s considered good luck to be the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each rounded loaf. Sweets are also part of the feast, including cookies, chocolate and sugar skulls. Friends and family members exchange gifts of sugar skeletons or other items with death related images. As in the case of pan de muerto, when the celebrant takes a bite out of the skull, the person symbolically “takes a bite of death” and thereby inoculates themselves against the fear of death.

“So much of this holiday – the food, the symbols of skulls and skeletons, the face painting, the Catrina dolls – it’s all about recognizing the circle of life and death,” Arenas said. “Death is nothing to be afraid of; it’s a natural part of the journey we are all on. So now, on Dia de los Muertos, we laugh at death. We bite the bread and say, ‘Ha ha!’ We have a picnic at the cemetery. We make it a party.”

Decoration is not restricted to gravesites. People also set up home altars dedicated to relatives. These are often decorated with yellow marigolds. For the Aztecs, the color yellow referenced autumn, the season when nature begins to die. An altar will also include a framed photograph of the person being honored, a candle and an arch that symbolizes the bridge between life and death. Like the gravesides, home altars are also adorned with religious amulets and food offerings. “It might just be a bowl of fruit,” Arenas explained, “but it can be anything the person enjoyed during life, something they would like to have if they came back for a visit – even a beer.”

Bridging Gaps, Building Community
The Tulare County League of Mexican American Women is an organization focused on empowering women and providing educational opportunities to needy students. Over the past 30 years, the League has given more than $200,000 in need-based scholarships. While Dia de los Muertos was not a fundraiser for the League, it was an opportunity to raise awareness of the Mexican American culture and share a unique part of Latino custom.

Several workshops were held during the months preceding the festival, each focused on a particular art form. The finished products were included in the decorations and displays at the event. Participants made sugar skulls, papier mâché skeletons, papel picados or “perforated paper flags,” and other elements that go into the building of an altar. Each item has some sort of symbolic significance.

“This event helps us bring people together and bridge the gap between cultures and generations,” said Arenas. “By celebrating the lives of those who came before us and those who have passed on, we are enriching the lives of everyone in the community and helping people see how we are all connected in life, and we will remain connected after death.”