Life in Death

900

People from diverse backgrounds crowded the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) atrium to celebrate Día de los Muertos. From the performances of traditional Mexican dances to authentic Mexican cuisine, the Día de los Muertos event brought the Latino holiday to Santa Cruz.

The holiday is a way for Latin@s to honor the dead and celebrate their lives by reflecting on joyous memories with their loved ones instead of mourning for their loss, which Latin@s perceive to be an insult to the deceased. Music, art and the smell of freshly cooked traditional Mexican foods like tamales, rice, beans and horchata are integral to the event.

Though Dí​a de los Muertos is mostly associated with Mexico — the birthplace of the tradition — it’s practiced throughout Latin America and in Latin@ communities in the United States. The festival remembers the passing of loved ones over the course of two days. Nov. 1 honors children who have died, while the 2nd is dedicated to adult family and friends who have died.

The MAH collaborated with Vive Oaxaca, a multi-service nonprofit organization, to strengthen the cross-cultural connections of the community in Santa Cruz. In organizing the traditional Mexican musical and dance performances, the museum and Vive Oaxaca sought to erase the geographic barrier which makes it difficult for those of Mexican heritage to practice their traditions.

Children and adults alike took a part in the day long event, both as observants and participants. The collaborative cultural event emphasized a recognition of Mexican culture and a celebration of those who have passed. Photo by Ali Enright.
Children and adults alike took a part in the day long event, both as observants and participants. The collaborative cultural event emphasized a recognition of Mexican culture and a celebration of those who have passed. Photo by Ali Enright.

“From the museum’s perspective, we want to be representative of our community,” said Youth Programs Manager Emily Hope Dobkin. “It’s creating a space to collaborate with [Vive Oaxaca] to do the traditional festival that they do in Mexico here in the museum.”

The museum featured altar exhibitions, which are a way to honor loved ones through memorabilia like photos and offerings of candles, flowers and baked treats. Just around the corner, face painting of calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls) was offered. To top it off, Vive Oaxaca and UC Santa Cruz’s Sabrosura Dance Troupe performed various dances, which illuminated the two groups’ goal of sharing Latin American and Caribbean cultures through the art of dance.

“It’s really important to embrace our roots, embrace our culture and feel like a family,” said Sabrosura Dance Troupe member Mariela Padilla, “and to make sure that everyone in the space feels like a family.”.

Dí​a de los Muertos drew many non-Latin@ attendees who wanted to participate in honoring the dead. The holiday has become widely practiced in California, where Latin@ residents make up 39 percent of the state’s population.

“The popularity of the holiday is reflected in the increasing cultures coming from different places. We live in such a global society,” said Community Programs Coordinator Sandino Gomez. “There’s so much migration going on, and I think people are increasingly maintaining their culture and keeping their cultures intact when they arrive here.”

While Dí​a de los Muertos serves to honor the dead, the holiday also plays a significant role in connecting many Latin@ to their heritages in Latin America. It has helped enhance a sense of community and unity in the cross-cultural exchange of traditions. Its values and homage to the dead through celebrations has also attracted non-Latino audiences.

“Loss and remembering our loved ones is a pretty universal thing across different cultures and different countries,” Gomez said. “It is very much an accessible tradition, an accessible culture and one people can easily participate in.”