Originating in Mexico, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a mix of religious and cultural elements: indigenous Aztec (the festival for Mictecacihuatl, The Lady of The Dead) and Catholic (Spanish conquistadors, All saints and All Souls Day). Preparations begin October 31st, and from November first through the second, the dearly departed are honored in festive and symbolic ways.
Altars are a focal point, whether in the home or at the cemetery. Decorations – or “ofrendas” (offerings) – include sugar skulls, flowers, and candles. The ofrendas also feature favorite objects of the honoree like musical instruments, food and beverages, clothing, and books.
Families also spend hours in cemeteries tending the graves of the deceased. Weeds are pulled, grass is cut, and ofrendas – especially marigolds, which are thought to attract the souls of the deceased – are arranged. Prayers, remembrances, and laughter, accompany picnics of calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin), tamales, and pan de muerto (a sweet bun-shaped roll with a sugar topping).
Some of the most recognizable images from Día de los Muertos are calacas (skeletons) and calaveras (skulls). These sassy bones are often living the whimsical life – hanging out with their cat, talking on their smartphone, performing as rock musicians, or drinking beer. Whether purchased in figurine, chocolate, wrestler, oilcloth, candle holder, sugar skull, or balloon form, these icons have a growing place in the mainstream North American consciousness.
An Artful Fiesta
Leading up to the holiday, we checked in with Veronica Olivares-Weber, art teacher, community organizer, and Guadalajara native, on her preparations for the annual Arts Council of Princeton Día de los Muertos celebration. When prepping for the festivities, it’s all hands on deck, including Veronica’s husband Oscar, along with their daughters, Valeria and Kyara.
JC: How elaborate are your plans prior to the big fiesta?
Veronica: We start the planning of activities and events months in advance. The actual preparations, and implementation of the planning stage, start three to four weeks in advance. With the support of the Arts Council of Princeton, the help of Princeton High School student volunteers, and community members, we work on the arts and crafts, make the sugar skulls, and create the decorations needed. We also work on the altar, which is the most important part of the celebrations. We make it all from scratch. I also start contacting and securing food vendors, the mariachi band, other participants, and the dancers (whenever they are available). While it is long, it is actually a fun process. I would like to thank the Princeton Shopping Center for sponsoring this event for many years now and for providing a unique venue for the celebrations.
JC: What has it meant to you, as young Mexican-American women, to be such a big part of the preparations?
Valeria and Kyara: Being a part of the preparations has allowed us to connect and learn about one of the most important parts of our heritage. It has been very important to us, especially due to the fact that we do live in a predominantly white town. It has also meant we can share our culture and traditions with our community, which is something that has always been important not only to us, but to our family. The interesting thing about Day of the Dead, is it is not a religious celebration, but instead, a celebration of life and death. A celebration consisting of colorful music, flowers, altars, food, and families. Our ancestors believed in welcoming death, and celebrating the life of those who have passed onto a better life. Something that we also really love about Day of the Dead is the fact there is the central figure of “La Catrina,” otherwise known as the “Lady of the Dead.” Being a part of the organization of the celebration has been an amazing experience for both of us, as well as our family.
Día de los Muertos in Princeton, NJ takes place Saturday, November 4, 3-5pm, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 N Harrison St. The event is free of charge and family-friendly. Enjoy strolling mariachis, decorate sugar skulls, get your face painted, and snack on food from Surf Taco.
This year, the Arts Council will introduce a Catrina/Catrin Contest. Work your best version of José Guadalupe Posada’s iconic “La Calavera Catrina” and you might win a prize.
From Alabama to Wisconsin, there’s bound to be a celebration in your state – click here for listings of other Día de los Muertos celebrations throughout the U.S.