¡Viva los muertos!
Pasadena celebrates life with Day of the Dead
By Sara Cardine 11/01/2012
While the Romans gave us “Memento mori,” a somber reminder of inescapable fate, Latin-American cultures have given us a more cheerful take on the final chapter. “Viva los muertos” — long live death.
Nowhere is this more colorfully expressed than in Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Nov. 1 celebration fast working its way into mainstream America.
What began as an ancient Aztec tradition intended to create a nexus between the worlds of the living and the dead, Día de los Muertos was lovingly adopted by the Mexican culture. People travel to cemeteries and tend to loved ones’ graves, communing with their spirits through song and shared memories.
Elaborate altars are built containing messages, foods and items that speak to a person’s habits or preferences in life. Marigolds fragrantly entice the dead to join the living.
“We feel like we’re all together again,” explains Luis Ramirez, 33, assistant manager at Pasadena’s El Portal restaurant. “When I was a kid, I remember we’d have a fiesta. Adults did the work and we had the fun. Now, I’m teaching my kids how to celebrate.”
This year, Ramirez helped construct an altar in the display window of El Portal’s adjacent Vanessa’s café. Honored is a mix of family members, community figures and beloved customers now gone. As is tradition, spooky figures figure prominently here.
Don’t let the skeletons fool you, though. This occasion is much more than a morbid spectacle. While Halloween aims to scare, Día de los Muertos is about homecoming and remembrance. It is a day for people to accept death as a natural fact.
“This is what we all have in common. No one’s exempt from this thing” explains Deborah Blanco, a local mixed media artist and bartender at Old Pasadena’s Freddie’s 35er. Continuing a years-long tradition, Blanco and friends have transformed the bar into a one-day-only work of art commemorating departed loved ones and cherished pets.
Today only, celebrants 21 and over can come and eat food from “Día de los Tacos,” hear mariachi, enjoy face painting and purchase muerto-style art. Participants are encouraged to leave notes or photos of remembrance on the altars, Blanco says.
It’s that sort of interaction that lends an added appeal to the celebration, says Gail Mishkin, gallery and publicity director for The Folk Tree, which showcases Latin-American folk art. The museum is holding its 29th Annual Day of the Dead Altars and Ephemera exhibit, comprising works from 77 local artists, through Sunday.
“A lot of the altars we have are very participatory,” Mishkin says. “It’s a great way for teachers to educate children about traditions from other places.”
Students from Pasadena’s The Waverly School, for example, made an altar for astronaut Neil Armstrong, who died Aug. 25 at age 82. Sierra Madre Middle School students conjured likenesses of dead celebrities, from Michael Jackson to Amy Winehouse, and of grandparents and great-grandparents known or remembered through stories.
Connecting young people with their own living histories through cultural traditions like Día de los Muertos helps them learn about where they came from and what we all have in common, says Karen Walker Chamberlin of the local artist group Blue Milagro. Chamberlin was building altars in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse Friday afternoon in advance of a community celebration that evening.
“This is a gift to the community,” she explains. “Because of the nature of the holiday even the kids’ art has a message, because it’s personal.”
With the cooperation of nearby businesses, including Zona Rosa Caffe, El Portal and Jacob Maarse Florist, the show featured pieces from individual altar makers, groups, like the Pasadena Mexican-American History Association, and students from four Pasadena area schools. Now in its 18th year, the show recently gained backing from the Pasadena Arts Council EMERGE program, which helps budding arts organizations put on community events. From here, it will only grow, reaching out to more ears and eyes with its message — Viva los muertos.
Freddie’s 35er is at 12 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626/356-9315). The Folk Tree is at 217 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena (626/795-8733; thefolktree.com).