Randy Cordova The Republic | azcentral.com
Published 12:53 PM EDT Oct 10, 2018
For Gennaro Garcia, his childhood memories of Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, are as colorful and vivid as the art he creates.
The 44-year-old spent his early years in Manzanillo, Colima, in southern Mexico. Every Nov. 1-2, his family would visit the cemetery where his relatives were buried. They would clean the tombs, making them look as good as new. There would be music, tequila and mezcal. And food, lots of food.
“It was a party,” says Garcia, who lives in the Ahwatukee Foothills neighborhood of metro Phoenix. “Everybody in town would come to the cemetery to spend time with the dead. I remember meeting and seeing all of my friends at the cemetery on that day. It was like a celebration of life.”
And, he stresses, there was never any fear.
“Part of our tradition in Mexico is to not be scared of death and to smile at it. It’s a celebration of our ancestors as they were when they were on this Earth, alive. It was never a sad thing or a scary thing.”
Day of the Dead survives, celebrates life
Like the memory of a loved one that never fades, Dia de Los Muertos also survives. It may change and evolve, but it never vanishes. The Spaniards learned that when they arrived in central Mexico in the 16th century. They viewed the ritual, which was started by the Aztecs some 3,000 years ago, as sacrilegious. But the festival couldn’t be quashed.
Not only did it survive, it thrived, moving from southern Mexico and spreading north. It also merged with elements of Christianity. Originally celebrated in the summer, it moved to Nov. 1 and 2 to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Day of the Dead is still celebrated throughout Mexico and has even gone Hollywood: Daniel Craig’s James Bond pursued a baddie through Mexico City during a massive Day of the Dead carnival in 2015’s “Spectre.” The 2014 film “The Book of Life” features a Day of the Dead theme and animation filled with calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). More recently, Pixar’s “Coco” built a sentimental tale around the holiday. The film won two Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature.
It has also moved to certain regions of the United States. In Arizona, for example, there are more than a dozen events that mark the occasion to honor the dead.
Celebrating with altars, processions
At the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, their annual celebration has turned into one of the organization’s signature events. There is an exhibition of ofrendas, or offerings to the deceased on altars, as well as music, storytelling and a procession.
Ken Schutz, executive director at the garden, said their event — now in its 13th year — has grown annually, something he sees as a natural progression.
“Nationally, you hear more and more about Day of the Dead,” he says. “Our country and our state is becoming more multicultural, and it’s higher on everyone’s radar. It’s becoming part of the national consciousness.”
The garden designed its festival to appeal to people who connect with the spiritual aspect as well as those who are more into the playful aesthetic of sugar skulls and dancing skeletons.
“That’s important for me on a deep level,” Schutz says. “People can plug in in different ways. For some folks, it’s a party. That’s true in Mexico, and that’s true here. But for the indigenous communities, it’s a very important holiday, and we try to stay true to that spirit.”
Schutz has experienced the power of Day of the Dead first-hand. Several years ago, he spent a week in Oaxaca in southern Mexico during the annual celebration.
‘A profound experience’
“It’s a profound experience,” Schutz says. “It can be shocking at first, when you go beyond the color and look at the deeper meaning. It was a time of happiness, a time of cooking. There was lots of decorating and bringing colors and flowers into the home. Families would come together to prepare an altar.”
Like Garcia, he went to a cemetery at night. And, like most people born and raised with an American sensibility, it was initially an unsettling concept.
“To me, it was the most culturally unfamiliar part of the experience: To sit in a cemetery all night with a mariachi band and a picnic basket at the graveside. The whole thing — it’s a whole different way to look at what it means to be alive. It was life-changing for me. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about living in a multicultural society: You have the privilege of seeing and sharing perspectives with other cultures.”
Oliverio Balcells, who originally is from Guadalajara, Jalisco, is very familiar with the tradition. As a child, he grew up in a “very Christian-Catholic” home, he says, and Day of the Dead was a regular part. There would be trips to the cemetery. In school, children would create skeleton-themed crafts to prepare for the holiday.
Now, however, “I don’t really follow with the religion anymore,” the Tempe man says with a chuckle. “I just explain to my kids: I don’t go to church or to cemeteries anymore.”
Tribute to loved ones
But Day of the Dead is a key part of the art he creates. He has made ofrendas for years. This year, he has a display at the garden of a spectacular ofrenda that stands 6 feet. Dominated by black and vibrant purples, it features a large butterfly and a symbol of a cocoon. In Mexico, monarch butterflies appear in November, and many believe they carry the souls of ancestors.
Balcells laughs when he says it’s not obvious what was on his mind when he created the ofrenda. But his mother, Marta Delgado, died last year. The altar is a tribute to her.
“You wish this person was here with you,” he says. “You want to remember this person, and that’s why you do it.”
Making the piece was “difficult,” he says. “I could not keep my emotions separate. Making an ofrenda is not something that is going to cure you of that feeling of sadness. But the feelings and the memories and all those things? When you finish, and you say, ‘It’s done,’ and you know the purpose and meaning behind it, it’s good to have this expression. And that helps you cope with the other parts.”
As Day of the Dead has expanded, there could be some fear that certain aspects — the spirituality, in particular — could get lost. Marco Albarran, an exhibit developer at Arizona State University, says evolution is natural.
Still a spiritual holiday?
“Here in the United States, they’re just trying to connect to something,” he says. “All humans celebrate something that is very similar, but everybody in each place has their own kind of twist, so it becomes more a humanistic celebration than a specifically Mexican one.”
Still, there are some elements that bother him about the commercialization of the days.
“Just go to the 99 cents store,” he says. “You’re going to see Dia de Los Muertos mixed in with Halloween. And then you go to a festival, and you look at Dia de Los Muertos art and it’s made in China? That’s not right.”
He says he will hear people criticize certain Dia de Los Muertos celebrations, saying they’re not traditional.
“But even what people perceive as traditional isn’t traditional,” he says. “I came from a family that was very traditional, and when we came to the border (in Sonora), that tradition still continued, but not as strong. It became very weak.
“Here, it’s almost kind of lost. It’s hard to connect with family the way we did when we were young, because everybody’s doing different things. If it wasn’t for Facebook, I don’t know what we’d do.”
Garcia knows that feeling. When he came to the United States, annual visits to cemeteries stopped. After all, he had no relatives buried here. He might go with friends, but it wasn’t the same thing.
But now that his daughter, Frida, is 6 years old, he and his wife, Briseida Silva, have decided she can be introduced to the meaning behind the art that he does.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment so we can teach her about Dia de los Muertos,” he says. “At an earlier age, they don’t understand it completely. Now, she has her own opinions, her own understanding of the celebration. She can understand it, and she doesn’t think it’s boring. For us, it’s as important as teaching her Spanish.”
They talk about the grandparents and great-grandparents Frida never knew, and she listens intently.
“That’s the beautiful part,” he says. “When you see her eyes and she’s trying to soak in these people and to understand they’ve passed away and we’re celebrating what they did, their way of life, what they used to eat, their favorite pastry — that’s the important thing.”
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8849. Twitter.com/randy_cordova.
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