El Panteon de Sacramento brings remembrance of the dead to streets of midtown

Spiritual beliefs about the cycles of life and death are prevalent this time of year, and they’ll be expressed at the 10th annual El Panteón de Sacramento.

Part of the larger holiday of Día de los Muertos, El Panteón de Sacramento is a free event happening in Midtown November 2 and 3 in the Sacramento Native American Health Center parking lot. It’s organized by the Latino Center for Arts and Culture.

Traditional celebrations of Día de los Muertos in small towns throughout Mexico include the creation of altars, or ofrendas, in local cemeteries with offerings for ancestors that include water, candles, incense, traditional breads, sugar formed into skulls, liquor and any other gifts particular to the dead person.

Specific elements are important for these altars, and include sensory items like orange marigolds, known for their pungent fragrance, that are used as aides to guide the dead from the underworld. The altars blend religious traditions of Catholicism and regional indigenous traditions from Mexico.

Traditional ofrendas have three levels according to Art Director of El Panteón Vidal Beltran, who is originally from Michoacán and grew up celebrating and observing customs related to Día de los Muertos. The lower level of the ofrenda represents limbo, where spirits dwell. Water, incense and candles are placed on this level because it is believed spirits need water to find eternal life. The middle level represents life, where the living and the dead congregate this time of year. Traditional foods like tamales, mole, and pan fruta are offered on this level along with water, beer, tequila or mezcal, and foods or drinks the person especially liked. The third level represents heaven. It is important to place photos of the person being remembered along with crosses and religious items and images on this level. Copal, an aromatic resin used ceremonially in pre-Colombian mesoamerican cultures, is often placed here as well.

“It is important that attendees of El Panteón de Sacramento, or any event related to the Day of the Dead, know that we do this with respect for our dead, and we know that we will all go with them someday, we are only here in passing in life. It is important to know the meanings of the altars’ offerings, and not to lose our traditions,” Beltran said (translated from Spanish by the author).

“To make ours a traditional celebration as day of the dead we root it in the vision to recreate how it is celebrated in small towns in Mexico, because Sacramento was once a small town in Mexico,” said LCAC’s Executive Director Marie Acosta. “It’s a joyful but somber time. There’s a playful way to deal with death, with a uniquely Mexican sense of humor.”

Acosta said the LCAC began El Panteón de Sacramento 10 years ago to provide an accessible space for the public to create altars celebrating the lives of the deceased, including loved ones or celebrities like famous authors and artists.

El Panteón de Sacramento has grown over the years, beginning with 27 altars in 2009 to more than 50 altars this year. Registration is full for 2019, but anyone can apply through the LCAC online to build an altar for next year’s event.

“Often the public engages with altar makers. People should feel encouraged to talk about and engage with families who are participating,” Acosta said.

This year’s event will have additional celebratory elements, due to support from the California Arts Council, including a traditional procession. There will be two bands, paper mâché puppets, ballet folklórica groups, and ten charros, which include five specially trained dancing horses. The procession should last about an hour.

Beltran makes the mojigangas as part of his work as a traditional Mexican artist. The puppets are made of reed and paper, and announce the arrival of festivities and processions. They will play an important role in El Panteón de Sacramento by welcoming the dead.

“This Día de los Muertos custom is new to the Panteón de Sacramento,” Beltran said of the procession in a news release, “and is more common in larger cities in Mexico – each year, hundreds of people dress up as Catrinas and descend on the zócalo to take part in a Catrina parade. Attendees paint their faces as a Catrina skull, with colorful accents around the eyes and cheeks, and dress in outfits appropriate for Día de los Muertos.”

Traditional celebrants of Día de los Muertos believe the dead come back to join the festivities to spend time with their friends and loved ones.

“These celebrations come from beliefs of life and death being like the yin and yang, one is a continuation of the other,” Acosta said of El Panteón de Sacramento and the traditions of Día de los Muertos. “Day of the Dead is an extension of that belief by acknowledging those that have passed and putting it in a light of renewal. Our dead are still with us.”