Celebrating the Day of the Dead in Alaska
Young Mexicans swirled around traditional alters built to welcome the spirits of passed on ancestors. Their faces were painted with skull-like images, symbolism which echoed the sentiments of Mexican Nobel Prize winning poet, Octavio Paz:
“The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
Members of the Mexican community hosted El Dia de Muertos – The Day of the Dead at the Northway Mall this weekend with traditional art, dance and music. Hundreds of visitors basked in the celebration.
El Dia de Muertos came to life in Alaska nine years ago when local Mexican artist and founder of Green Bee Studios, Indra Arriaga set up a traditional alter in the Sunshine Mall. The celebration flourished through the years as various community members joined in and hosted events at venues such as the Out North Contemporary Art House.
“El Dia de Muertos is a tradition from the pre-Hispanic era. It belongs to the indigenous people of Mexico,” said Javier Abud-Osuna, consulate of Mexico in Anchorage.
Abud-Osuna said the annual celebration, held from November 1-2, honors family members and loved ones who have passed away. Millions of Mexicans spend the day in the cemetery where they eat, drink, dance and share family stories. It is a peaceful, happy celebration. Abud-Osuna said sacred alters are built to welcome the spirits of the dead with special offerings which includes favorite foods and items they had when they lived.
Arriaga likened Dia de Muertos to Christmas where each family has their special way of celebrating. Just like a family Christmas tree, family alters are decorated with each family’s specific touch of love and meaning. She said tradition also varies by region.
Brenda Rodriguez, a recent graduate from UAA recalled spending time with her family in the cemetery back home in Mexico and how it was a fun time for her. She said it was there that she learned about the history Dia de Muertos, which dates back with her ancestors over 4000 years ago.
Arriaga said that in addition to the cultural aspect, there is a contemporary aspect, which is a political standpoint of what the people are going through today.
Abud-Osuna and Arriaga say they hope to see future generations continue the tradition of El Dia de Muertos, even thousands of miles away from Mexico here in Alaska.
“I never met my great grandmother but I know stories about her and I share them with my nieces and nephews,” Arriaga said. “It’s how you keep family history alive.”
The Shrine and its meanings:
Colorful cut out paper: Union between life and death.
Banquet: to celebrate the arrival of the souls.
Sahumerio with copal incense: The tradition from life to death and keeps away evil spirits.
Dish of salt: Purification for the soul so it is not corrupted.
Lime crosses on the floor: Represents the four cardinal points.
Flower path to the alter gate: To guide the way of the souls to the offerings.
Toys: For the amusement of deceased children.
Votives and candles: Ascending of the spirit, symbol of love that guides souls and shrines.
Personal belongings of the deceased: It could be pictures or something that they used.
Little skulls: Made of sugar or chocolate, representing the departed in the family.
Flowers: White: the sky; Yellow: the earth (Aztec marigold guides the spirits to this world); Purple: mourning.
Bread of the dead: Represents the host’s generosity and the gift of the earth itself.
Glass of water: To quench the thirst for the souls and to strengthen them for their return.
Typical foods for the offerings: Rice, mole, candied pumpkin and seasonal fruits.