For some, the day after Halloween means buying discounted candy at the local drugstore. For others, it’s one of the most significant cultural celebrations of the year.
A holiday rooted in a pre-Columbian past, Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – is celebrated in Mexico and other parts of the world, and is centered on the belief that death is an extension of life.
And in the Sacramento area, there are plenty of ways to experience Dia de los Muertos – places for prayer, weekend-long festivals, boozy parties and museum exhibits among them.
“It’s a toast to life and the deceased,” said Marie Acosta, executive director of La Raza Galería Posada, host to what is likely to be the region’s biggest event.
The nonprofit Latino art and cultural center is expecting more than 5,000 people to pour into its panteón, an urban re-creation of a cemetery in a midtown parking lot on J Street between 20th and 21st streets.
The free two-day celebration is in its fourth year, made possible by donations, sponsorships and a grant from the James Irwin Foundation.
The panteón’s main draw will be 50 large altares, traditional, colorful memorials bearing flowers, candles, sweetbreads, sugar skulls, personal artifacts and photos of the deceased.
“All of these altares are so unique, interesting and heart-warming,” Acosta said. “People share their most intimate memories of their families.”
Acosta said the act of making these altars, usually measuring 12 feet long and 6 feet wide, can help close the grieving cycle. And for Mexicans and Mexican Americans who have not recently lost a loved one, the festivities provide a much-appreciated connection to their cultural roots, she added.
“It’s a reflection of a universal experience we all share,” Acosta said. “And it’s a tradition rooted in community.”
Family fun will hit its high point from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with activities such as mask-making and face-painting. But attendees won’t want to miss the live music, dancing and traditional, candlelit experience at the panteón at 8 p.m. Saturday.
An 11-piece mariachi band is scheduled to fly in from Jalisco, Mexico, to start the celebration, and Andrés Flores, maestro of Veracruz, Mexico’s regional folk music, and Maria Luisa Colmenares, founder of the Mexican folk artist nonprofit Danzantes Unidos de California, will lead dancers for the “call the muertos” at 10 p.m.
For a more intimate affair, there will be a Day of the Dead celebration at the Davis Cemetery on Saturday afternoon. Joe Finkleman, community outreach director of the Davis Cemetery District, expects more than 100 people to attend the cemetery’s third celebration, which will honor Jack Forbes, the scholar credited with establishing one of the first Native American Studies programs in the country at UC Davis.
“We try to honor the different UC Davis professors we have buried here, and this is a perfect way for Forbes,” Finkleman said. “He literally wrote the textbook on ethnic studies.”
The event will include indigenous dancers, drummers, poets and live music. And although it untraditionally focuses on a single honoree, Finkleman emphasized it’s inclusive, and attendees can leave offerings at a public altar.
But when parties are titled “Dia de los Muertos Pin Up Girl Fiesta” with cash prizes for the sexiest dressed guests, there is a fear that tradition significance could erode.
“It’s inevitable,” Acosta said. “We live in a commercialized world, but that makes how we do the panteón even more important.”
Acosta noted that last year some people tried to sell merchandise at altars. That has been banned, and La Raza Galería Posada volunteers will be on the lookout for it this weekend.
But organizers agree that the holiday’s growing popularity has far more upside than downside.
As Finkleman says: “It doesn’t matter if you have no Meso-American ties. It’s for everyone to remember their loved ones.”
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