By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Cindy Gresser, executive director of Smoki Museum. The Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead celebration is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Oct. 28, at the Smoki Museum, 147 N. Arizona Ave., 928-445-1230, SmokiMuseum.Org.]
What is Día de los Muertos?
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of the fastest growing celebrations in the United States, but it’s roots are in Mexico. Our mission, for our area here at the Smoki, is one that has no international boundary or border. The indigenous people who live in southern Arizona also lived in northern Mexico. We were given the opportunity to bring Day of the Dead to the museum several years ago and we seized it. Since that time, this has become one of our most popular events at the Smoki. Everyone from little kids to elderly people can enjoy painting their faces and dressing up and celebrating the lives of the people they love, even if they’re gone.
So what does that look like?
Well, we have Ballet Folklorico, we have mariachi, we have children from La Tierra performing, and we have dancing, and the Why Not? Bellydance troupe. There’s food and drinks and crafts for the kids. There are sugar skulls and vendors. The highlight of the day is the procession we do into Citizens Cemetery. We receive donations of flowers from supermarkets and flower stores around town, and we walk in a procession and honor and decorate the graves of our dearly departed. The performances on the stage are from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., so those are the hours you want to be here. We have ofrendas, which are altars, and they’re set up every year in the Pueblo. You should make sure to spend enough time to enjoy the great food, participate in the dancing and the procession — usually between 12:30 and 1 p.m. — and to see the altars.
What’s an altar in this context?
It’s a way to honor those who’ve passed away. It’s done with the traditional elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The earth is usually represented by flowers, most often marigolds. For air, it’s usually papel picado, which is cut paper. There are these tissue paper banners that move in the slightest breeze — even from someone just walking by. For fire, it’s usually candles, but we don’t allow those in the pueblo because, well, it’d burn down. Most people bring battery-operated tealights. For water, it’s often an open bowl of water or the favorite beverage of the person who passed. … The creation of these altars is very often a healing experience for the person creating them. You have to think about that person to do it, and you have to envision the things you loved about them and figure out a way to honor those things. We’ve found many people are timid about participating, but once they do it, it’s, “Oh, my god; this is the best thing I’ve ever done.” It’s especially useful for people having trouble with a loss, with the death of a loved one. We really encourage people to participate in that altar process. It brings those positive feelings into your heart and gives you something to look forward to. It’s a celebration of life, not the mourning of a death. … There are applications on our website. We ask that people leave their altar up from Oct. 22 until at least the celebration, up to the week afterword — two weeks total if you leave it up the whole time. It’s on a first-come, first-served basis. Last year we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 altars in the Pueblo.
How has celebrating Día de los Muertos changed your own perspective on death?
The first altar I created was for my mom and dad. I hadnt yanked out some of my mom’s stuff in a very long time. I was extremely close to my dad and to go back through his things and find his favorite objects and remember why it was important for me to keep them — that made me cry a lot. But it also made me a laugh a lot because my dad was really funny man. He would’ve found the whole process fascinating. … There’s a family that comes to the celebration routinely and creates an altar. They lost a little girl; she died way too young. They come every year and go out and buy her favorite foods and beverages and her dad creates stuff, actually builds stuff, and they make it as beautiful as they possibly can. I know for that family, it’s been a really, really special thing. Suddenly, they’re celebrating their little girl again — not her loss, but her life. We forget that sometimes, but people impact our lives long after they’re gone. They stay with you, so do they ever really go away?
What are some of the traditional symbols of Día de los Muertos?
Marigolds are the traditional flower in Mexico, though they’re a little hard to get here. They’re hearty plants, though, and the come up here toward the end of the summer. Those bright orange and yellow pedals add vibrancy. The sugar skulls, called calaveras, are really the mascot of the whole holiday. They represent the sweetness of life and bitterness of death. They represent bringing life back to what’s gone. There’s also the pan de muertos, bread of the dead, that’s a traditional food that’s frequently used on the altars as an offering.
Could you shed some light on some common misconceptions about Día de los Muertos celebrations?
I think the number one misconception is that it’s morbid. It’s not morbid; it’s about life. This isn’t about witches or pumpkins or scarecrows. This is about flowers and dancing and laughing and sharing. It’s very, very different from what Americans’ conception of Halloween is.
How has the event at the Smoki changed over the years?
It’s grown and grown and grown. We started out with just a mariachi band, then convinced the lovely ladies of Mexico Lindo to come. A few years later, La Tierra came and went all in with their Spanish language program. There just seem to be more and more people wanting to come to this. Prescott’s Hispanic population is growing and this is becoming quite the family event. Other people are almost starving for activities that are just a little bit different from what they’re used to. People want to do something that engages them in a new way of thinking, and this fits the bill. You can be 8 or you can be 80 and still paint your face and go out and dance. Another growing demographic is younger families. There aren’t a lot of events where you can bring your kids and either go into the activity tent with them, or you can sit back and watch a band, or you could have a drink.
What do you recommend for first-timers?
Well, I’d remind them it’s free. We love donations and there are vendors, of course. Just come with an open mind and an open heart. Come and enjoy yourself.
The Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead celebration is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Oct. 28, at the Smoki Museum, 147 N. Arizona Ave., 928-445-1230, SmokiMuseum.Org.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.
Tags: altars, Ballet Folklorico, calaveras, Cindy Gresser, Citizen's Cemetery, Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, James Dungeon, La Tierra, mariachi, Mexico Lindo, ofrendas, pan de muertos, papel picado, Smoki Museum, sugar skulls, Why Not? Bellydance