A little rain and wind on Saturday October 23, 2021 did not dissuade me from attending a Dia de los Muertos celebration at Pier 62 in Seattle. I have celebrated All Saint’s Day for several years, but over the past 3-4 years I have gravitated towards the Latino celebrations and the customs that they willingly share with the rest of us.
Every year that I attend this celebration, I learn new things. I learned a lot this year.
Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with customs that combine indigenous Aztec ritual with the Catholic faith that Spanish conquistadors brought here during the 16th century.
The Aztecs did not mourn their dead, but celebrated death as just another step in the life cycle. Similar to the Celts and their celebration of Samhain, Aztecs believed that this was the time when spirits of the recently departed returned to the mortal world a final time before crossing over into the next one.
It was therefore fitting that the first set on the pier was performed by the local Aztec dance troupe Teocalli Cuatlicue. Incense from a stone brazier wafted over the area and the dancers as they donned their massive feather headdresses and prepared for their performance. Their dances were very energetic and I recognized some of the postures from ancient Aztec stone carvings. I was pretty impressed that half of them danced barefoot on the wet pavement, and that they picked up feathers that they shed, and held them while they finished each dance. Their clothing and dances honored creatures that were important to the Aztec culture, most notably snakes, birds and hares. Festivities this year (for both this event and the virtual Festal event on October 31) had a notable focus on Aztec culture, as this year marked the 500th Anniversary of the Fall of Tenochtitlán.
The Aztecs used skulls to decorate their temples and honor their dead, and skulls and skeletons became key symbols of contemporary Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), appear everywhere as candied sweets, as parade masks, as dolls. They are almost always portrayed as “happy skeletons” who are hanging around in fancy dress and having a good time. Jose Guadalupe Posada included calaveras in his art as a form of social and political commentary. His most well-known work, La Calavera Catrina, features a female skeleton covering up her indigenous heritage with a French dress and fancy hat, and makeup to whiten her skin. La Catrina would become the public face of Día de Muertos revelry. Diego Rivera also incorporated a La Catrina in his 1947 mural portraying the end of Mexico’s Revolutionary War; her elegant dress denoted a mocking celebration, while her smile reminded revelers to accept their common mortality.
At this point I want to clarify for some who have asked, that Dia de los Muertos is not “Mexican Halloween.” American Halloween is about costumes, candy, creepy things and scary movies. Dia de los Muertos is a joyous remembrance of the dead. Although some symbols like skeletons and pumpkins figure in both celebrations, the context is completely different, and some symbols like La Catrina do not cross over at all. Dressing as a La Catrina for Halloween is on the edge of cultural misappropriation – an error I’ve made in the past, but have now humbly corrected.
Here are some La Catrinas from Bailadores de Bronce dancing a set, while their male El Catrin counterparts wait off stage.
After their set, I climbed what felt like endless stairs that constitute the Pike Place Hill Climb, and boarded the monorail (with a lot of Kraken hockey fans) to the Seattle Center. Kraken fans went to the arena for our inaugural home game, and I visited the A/NT (Art Not Terminal) Gallery for an exhibit of works by local artists, including an ofrenda in the front room of the gallery.
In the Latino community you will see ofrendas (altars) in both homes and businesses, with photos or tokens of loved ones passed, and offerings that can include tamales, chilis, water, tequila, sugar skulls and pan de muerto. Orange is a prominent color for ofrendas, and orange or yellow cempasúchil flowers (a variety of large marigold), have a strong scent that helps guide the souls to the banquet that is being held in their honor. Classic ofrendas are three layers and include the four elements: water, food (symbolizing earth), a candle (fire), and for wind – papel picado – colorful tissue papercuts often strung as banners. Some families also include a crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint.
The next week, I learned that there is a whole sub-strata of activity surrounding ofrendas, leading up to Dia de los Muertos:
- On October 28, the first candle is lit and a white flower is placed to receive the lonely souls.
- On October 29, another candle is lit and a glass of water is placed for the forgotten and the helpless.
- On October 30 a new candle is lit, another glass of water and a piece of bread is placed to honor the deceased that left without eating, or those who died by accident.
- On October 31 another candle is lit, another glass of water, another piece of bread and a piece of fruit are placed, to honor the dead of the dead (ancestors, i.e. great-grandparents and great-great grandparents).
- November 1 is “all saints day” when the souls of those who died as children arrive. On this day all the food is set on the altar.
- November 2 is “all soul’s day” and focuses on those who died as adults. New offerings can include tobacco and alcohol.
On November 1, I visited the Fisher Pavilion at the Seattle Center (this event runs now through November 7, proof of vaccination status and face masks are required at the door but entry is else wise free). The room was filled with ofrendas, and posters of previous Dia de los Muertos celebrations, and a recreated Mexican cemetery. Public ofrendas have commemorated victims of the AIDS epidemic, major earthquakes, and mass casualty events. One of the ofrendas I saw here was devoted to those lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were also large cempasúchil wreaths for sale, one incorporated butterflies and made me think of Mom.
My own ofrenda honors my mother (who died in January 2020) and her parents, with tokens symbolizing a few others who have passed. It’s small but mighty, and I was happy to find cempasuchil flowers at my local Mexican grocer this year. I also kept my pan du muerto wrapped after catching my cats licking the sugar off the loaf I laid out last year. (Note to readers – be cognizant of offerings that may not be pet friendly, or conversely – too pet friendly…)
I always look forward to the tapete (sand paintings) which are a modern folk art common in Oaxaca, Mexico. This one at the Fisher Pavilion was designed by a team of artists and community members to honor those who have died this year defending our water, trees and natural resources.
Día de los Muertos celebrations may be gaining popularity beyond the Latino community because it addresses the reality of our own mortality, which the losses from the pandemic have pushed into the forefront. As of November 1, 2021, we have lost 5,005,546 souls globally, and 747,033 in the US. (On November 1, 2020 that US figure was 230,967.)
In Mexico, it is said that people die three deaths. The first death is the failure of the body. The second is the burial of the body. The final and most complete death is the third, when we fade into oblivion because there is no one left to remember us.
It is important to remember…