Event captures spirit of Day of the Dead
A harmonica, a recipe book and a piece of De la Rosa marzipan candy. A General Electric employee ID badge, a bottle of Mexican coke and a pair of glasses. A jar of Jergens face cream, a tube of red lipstick and a cat figurine.
Through these belongings, and countless others, strangers in skeletal face paint read the stories of the dead at the Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts center’s annual Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, festival on Saturday. The 40th anniversary event featured live performances, artisan craft vendors and a display of altars dedicated to deceased loved ones.
The Mexican multi-day holiday, which kicks off on Tuesday, celebrates the spiritual return of the departed to the land of the living. The spirits are believed to party with their corporeal relatives, who prepare sacred altars honoring their legacies.
“Both my parents are dead but I look forward to feeling their spiritual presence again,” said Consuelo Lara, MECA’s festival cochair.
As Aztec drum beats pounded outside, festival attendees strolled through the MECA lobby and cafeteria admiring the colorful altars on display. Though each told a unique family history, all the altars shared certain qualities as per tradition: three layers and symbols for the four natural elements.
The first layer, representing the celestial world, features religious statues and paintings most often of the Virgin Mary, the Sacred Heart of Christ and family patron saints. The second layer holds photos and belongings of the dead meant to relay who they were when alive. The third displays offerings to be taken by the spirits upon their return, usually comprising of their favorite foods and drink.
Across all three layers, the four elements are represented through items such as candles for fire, jugs of water, potted plants for earth, and papel picado, or ornately cut tissue paper to represent wind.
Weeks before the festival, families registered to set up the altars, which will remain on display through Nov. 15. This year, paintings by artist and HISD safe schools administrator, Luis Gavito, served as an added decoration to the sacred stands.
A third generation Texan from Brownsville, with a family lineage originating in northern Mexico, Gavito, 68, created memory jars for an altar he built to honor his ancestors, many of whom fought in the Mexican Revolution.
Blue and white seashells and crimson red stones, representing the Aztecs and spilled indigenous blood, were sculpted into the clay jars, intermixed with beaded crosses and amulets of Christian saints. Serving as a seal, stood La Virgen de Guadalupe, a Christian figure with the look and language of an indigenous woman.
“It’s important to celebrate your culture,” Gavito said. “You can’t forget your roots.”
Diana Moreno, 34, snapped a picture of one of Gavito’s memory jars before gasping at an altar that featured a veiled papermache figure of La Catrina, a finely dressed skeleton that has become an icon of Dia de los Muertos since illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada first etched the image in 1910 and muralist Diego Rivera later popularized it in his 1948 mural, “Sunday Evening’s Dream.”
“It’s so pretty,” Moreno whispered to her friend as she pointed at all the items adorning the altar before her.
“I should make one for my grandma,” she added.
Heading over to a mariachi performance in the center’s auditorium, Moreno considered what the altar of Christina Sanchez, 93, would contain.
A purple cloth, her favorite color. An arrangement of white peace lilies, her favorite flower. Seashells and sand from the beach, her favorite place in the mortal world.
Makenzie Jones, 14, wears a flower crown for a visit to the Dia de los Muertos Festival in Houston as part of a Spanish club field trip on Saturday.