Among the celebrations that have been successfully integrated here with the arrival of immigrants from various countries, one has attracted a lot of attention and is becoming more and more popular. The Day of the Dead comes from an ancestral Mesoamerican tradition which, like others of indigenous origin, survived the imposed Christianity of the Spanish Conquest, resulting in a syncretism of religion and paganism.
In Point Reyes, the Day of the Dead was observed almost three decades ago, when Ruby Morris and Terry Elaine invited Señora Concha, an Indian shaman of San Francisco, to the offices of Health and Human Services. She blessed a sort of altar that Ruby both worked with and improved. With beloved Ruby’s death and the passage of time, the annual custom disappeared, but something of the spirit remained.
Last year there was a new, well organized and choreographed celebration that began in the studio of artist Ernesto Sánchez, creator of gigantic figures and skeletons similar to those made in some parts of Mexico. In his studio, members of the Coro de los Muertos (Chorus of the Dead) painted their faces to resemble skulls with deathly expressions and dressed for the grisly occasion. The chorus was a project of the non-profit Sound Orchard led by musicians Debbie Daly and Tim Weed.
Tim and Debbie organized previous trials of the chorus, the music and choreography presented during the celebration, including an original composition in Spanish by Tim. They began with chants in a corner of Gallery Route One and, after the arrival of some Aztec Dancers (who never participate in this celebration in Mexico) there was a public procession to the Dance Palace, where Latino children paraded to place offerings on a previously installed collective altar. All of this with music and singers of the chorus directed by Tim and Debbie, plus well-orchestrated choreography.
This new local celebration, with relatively little Latino interest and participation, created according to the inspiration of the organizers and the Coro de los Muertos, has been well-received and accepted by the local gringos, who often have to look to foreign celebrations for spiritual refuge—perhaps due to the lack of traditional ones of their own. This year there will be a similar celebration, again with little Latino participation. This is due not only to a lack of authenticity, but because most of the immigrants in the area come from the Jalostotitlán area in Mexico, where few follow this tradition.
Afterward, Tim, Debbie and the chorus went to Bolinas with their songs, singers and choreography. There, the Sinaloan activist Mirta installed an ofrenda in a public building. More Latinos are involved there, because they are not from the same places as those from Point Reyes and their customs regarding this celebration are different. In almost every place where there are Latino immigrants, someone will organize something to do with the Day of the Dead; for example, in Petaluma, where the celebration lasts a month, and any Latino expression is welcome, many merchants display ofrendas in their windows. This happens not only in the Bay Area and California, but in much of the country.
In Mexico, the celebration has many variations, according to the times, region, and social and educational level of the participants. Some places don’t celebrate at all. The original belief is that the souls of the dead return on the night of Nov. 1 through Nov. 2, and for that one must prepare a commemorative ofrenda for them—not religious, although there may be Christian images—with remembrances of the deceased and things that the deceased used and liked in life, including food.
Further, the family visits the cemetery where the relative’s remains are, to clean the gravesite and decorate it with flowers. In rural areas with a more indigenous tradition the people may stay the night, praying, singing, crying, eating, drinking, remembering, and celebrating in a mixture of magic, party, religion and catharsis, far removed from those city dwellers who may feel more sophisticated and less superstitious.
In urban areas you are not permitted to spend the night in the cemeteries, though hundreds of thousands of people visit them on Nov. 2. There are still believers who erect an ofrenda in their homes, a custom which has been disappearing. These days many people are revisiting the practice as a sort of pagan tradition, similar to the Christmas tree, without the original spirit, in which they no longer believe. All this is complemented by the purchase, preparation and consumption of exquisite food, plus new as well as traditional artisanal things, like the skulls made of sugar.
With this rebirth of a custom in which many don’t necessarily believe (driven in many cases by government authorities), there are now public ofrendas dedicated not only to individuals, but also to groups or entities, all mixed with more and more commercial and distorted expressions reminiscent of the American Halloween, which seems to be here to stay.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico, with decades-old ties to the Light.