Ricardo Alarcon, executive director of the Mayan dance group Grupo Pakal, used to spend the night in the cemetery. While that might sound straight out of a horror movie, it is very common in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos.
For many families, the loss of a loved one is a time for immense grief. But for Mexican families it is also a time to remember the dead and celebrate them with a party, particularly with activities the dead enjoyed during their life. When you’re celebrating the dead, you have to bring the party to them.
The thought of heading to the cemetery for a festival might sound a little odd, but for Stephanie Hughes of the Hughes Family Tribute Center, it makes perfect sense. The story goes that in 1967, Ronald Hughes Sr. forgot to get his wife a Christmas gift so instead he gave her the cemetery he had just purchased. Now, for the second year in a row, the Hughes family is giving a gift to their community — a traditional Mexican festival honoring and celebrating the dead, complete with a play commissioned by the Tribute Center.
The cemetery, Crown Hill Memorial Park, is located in the Bachman Lake area and traditionally visited by families on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated on Nov. 1. Though it is celebrated throughout Latin America, it is most strongly associated with Mexico where the tradition originated, says Hughes. Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec rituals with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores.
The festival will build on this tradition by presenting a theatrical production by Teatro Flor Candela and a dance presentation by Grupo Pakal, specializing in Mayan dance. The festival will also feature altar building and blessing; vendors of traditional Dia de los Muertos items such as marigolds, pastries and sugar skulls; and children’s activities, live music and prize drawings.
“Dia de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones,” says Hughes.
And while all of this is happening the weekend of Halloween, it actually has nothing to do with the spooky holiday. “Halloween’s history dates to ancient Celtic customs,” says Hughes.
“Dia de los Muertos is spread over two days. Nov. 1 is Dia de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. Graves are decorated with white orchids and baby's breath. Nov. 2 is Dia de los Muertos, honoring adults, whose graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds. In the United States, the holiday is often only on one day.”
Those familiar with the holiday will be excited to find traditional food and treats at the festival, including pan de muerto, or “bread of the dead.” Other common foods are mole sauce, nuts, oranges, pumpkins, chocolate and corn.
In addition to lots of food, the festival will feature traditional altars.
“The dead are honored on Dia de los Muertos with ofrendas, small, personal altars honoring one person. Ofrendas often have flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos and personal mementos of the person being remembered,” Hughes explains.
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The altars and graves are traditionally decorated with marigolds, known as cempasúchil or “flower of the dead.” Sugar skulls, la calaveras de azúcar, are placed on the altars. Traditional colors are purple, pink, white, orange, red, yellow and black.
The festival will close with a showing of the animated film, The Book of Life, which was co-produced by Guillermo del Toro and nominated for a Golden Globe in 2014.
The festival is free and open to the public.
The festival takes place noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, at Crown Hill Memorial Park, 9700 Webb Chapel Road. Grupo Pakal is at 5 p.m.,Teatro Flor Candela is at 6:15 p.m. and the movie presentation is at approximately 7:15 p.m. Admission is free.