Dia de Los Muertos in Santa Cruz

Somewhere along the line, in the course of my three decades of visiting Mexico, I became obsessed with fanciful skull and skeleton folk art. I quickly learned that the characters with which I was so enamored had emerged from celebrations of El Día de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. Until last week, however, I had never had the chance to witness any of this holiday’s festivities. Now that I’ve landed in Santa Cruz, CA, a city with a substantial Latino population, I have finally had an opportunity to catch a glimpse of how families in this area express their connections to their ancestors.

Day of the Dead celebrations typically occur on November 1 and 2, although prior to the Spanish Conquest, they took place during the month of August. It is thought that the holiday evolved from Aztec rituals honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld. In order to continue this celebration under Spanish Colonial rule, its timing was changed to blend in with another culturally predominant holy day – All Souls’ Day.

While both the honorees and the timing of these days is similar, their approaches to commemorating the deceased are quite different. Because death is considered to be a gateway to another, better world in the Mexican tradition, El Día de Los Muertos festivities are characterized by joy, color, music, and remembrance. Families take time out of their lives to reminisce about loved ones who have passed, swapping stories to keep them alive in their thoughts. It is common for people to create altars to honor the lives of dead friends and relatives. These incredibly colorful and fanciful expressions can contain everything from photographs and medals to poems and the deceased’s favorite knick-knacks. It is traditional to offer the dead person his or her favorite food and drink on the altar (beer is ubiquitous!) as well as “Pan de los Muertos,” an egg-shaped bread often molded into the shape of a skull.

Here in Santa Cruz, the Museum of Art and History (MAH) created a “community altar” to which individuals contributed various objects and photographs. Their sugar skull workshop allowed members of the public to drop in on a Friday night to create this traditional Day of the Dead offering. I decorated my wide-eyed “calavera” with some electric-colored icing (including a lime green goatee) before adding it to the table of “ofrendas.”

Two days later, the MAH hosted dance performances and craft tables for making tissue paper flowers and paper bag lanterns. Those booths were busy, but the line for the face-painting station extended out the door and into the lobby.  Apparently I’m not the only one who wanted to sport the traditional half-skeleton face that reminds us that death and life are two sides of the same coin.


The museum’s events culminated a procession to the city’s oldest cemetery, with a few stops along the way. The parade was led by a musicians and dancers from Senderos, a local Mexican cultural preservation group, but the most notable participants in the parade were, of course, the giant doll figures worn on the shoulders of a couple of intrepid men. It’s always a treat to see a 10 foot tall indigenous Mexican paper maché figure parading in front of trendy shops and cafes, after all.   Police assistance was needed to help the dolls (and their companions) through the city streets.

Meanwhile, down the highway in Watsonville, CA, a predominantly Mexican town on the central coast, the Pajaro Valley Arts Council hosted an exhibit opening that included twenty different altars. Some of these were traditional, in the sense that they used skeletons, photographs, candles, and food in their presentations. Others interpreted the idea of commemorating the dead somewhat differently, creating art pieces that honored fallen policemen and soldiers by exhibiting their uniforms, badges, and other symbols of their public service.

One particularly moving altar was dedicated to Madyson Middleton, the 8-year old Santa Cruz resident whose murder this past summer shocked the community. The piece is called “Howling for Maddy” and is made up of forty or fifty ceramic howling wolves facing a paper moon inscribed with messages from her friends and classmates.   This city is still reeling from this crime, and I continue to be impressed by all the attempts I see to come to terms with her death through art.

That’s what I love about this tradition. It is an attempt to make sense of the unsolvable mystery we all live with, and in doing so, forces us to honor the life that we currently live.

I grew up Catholic, and from an early age was frightened by that faith’s overwhelmingly macabre depictions of death. Dark colors and gaunt faces predominate in the Catholic iconography of death, as do dismal, dirge-like music and the distinctively solemn tone of funerals and funeral masses. I had decided by the age of twelve that my culture’s way of commemorating the passing of a loved one didn’t resonate with me.  So, when I discovered a culture that depicts dancing, drinking, bicycle-riding, enchilada-making, truck-driving skeletons in electric colors as a way of injecting a little positivity and humor into our common inevitable end, I was thrilled. Here’s a culture that GETS it, I thought – folks who understand that in order to love your life you must always remember that it will end. Ephemerality begets value. And if you can’t laugh about the mystery, well, it’s going to be a long, hard road.

I’ve had a few “ancestors” on my mind lately, as I’ve attended these celebrations and stopped to observe altars. Unfortunately, as someone who doesn’t believe in any form of an afterlife, I don’t think I can communicate with them or offer them anything. In my world view, they’ve returned to some form of elemental energy and don’t maintain an individual personality, much less a bodily form that can consume a bottle of tequila. Nevertheless, I heard something this weekend that I found moving.

One Mexican tradition says that there are three deaths. The first occurs when the body dies – the classic medical definition of death. The next death takes place when the body is interred. The final death happens only when the name of the deceased is uttered by the living for the last time. If someone is remembered, he or she can escape that final death.

That seems like all the reason I need to make my days count by positively impacting everyone I encounter, and to think about my friends who have passed, uttering their names with a smile.  Not a bad afterlife, really.




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