Dia de los Muertos educates, celebrates
The holiday is not ‘Mexican Halloween’
NEWPORT NEWS — People were dying for a moment with Lady Death.
Saturday afternoon, children smiled up into her pale, white face as she slid through the Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead” event, at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center. Adults stopped her for selfies, taking in her colorful layers of pink, black and blue, and the crystals shimmering around her eyes.
“You have nothing to fear with Lady Death,” Michelle Horner Grau said to the crowd.
Grau, instructor of Spanish and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages at Christopher Newport University, spoke to the packed audience in the museum’s main hall to explain the history and importance of the Mexican tradition.
Lady Death, or Catrina as she is known, is a helpful, playful guide for those who die and begin their next journey, she said.
Dia de los Muertos isn’t about “doom and gloom,” Grau said. “In Mexico, it’s a happy time to remember people who’ve gone before us.”
The museum started the annual event five years ago to recognize the area’s growing Hispanic population, said Courtney Gardner, PFAC’s executive director
Reports from the city of Newport News show that Hispanics were the fastest growing demographic, increasing 92 percent from 2000 to 2014, according to the city’s website.
The event is also a time to dispel myths and educate.
Dia de los Muertos runs from Nov. 1-2, and is not “a Mexican Halloween,” Grau said.
It is centuries old and is the blending of Aztec Indian traditions with Catholic customs that were brought with Spanish invaders in the 16th century. On Nov. 1, families traditionally decorate the gravesites with items the persons loved, such as bottles of favorite wines, foods and flowers.
On Nov. 2, families often create altars or “ofrendas” in their homes and cover them with photos of those who have died, candles and religious symbols.
A few protesters showed up the first year, Gardner said, because they thought the celebration had something to do with devil worship.
At Saturday’s event, children had their faces painted to resemble “calaveras” or skulls. Children created buttons to remember a departed relative and sat on the sidewalk in the sun and used chalk to draw tributes to deceased relatives.
Grau and Maria del Rosario Olea-Cruz, who was Lady Death, kept large crowds engaged as members of the audience helped Grau complete a community ofrenda.
Children stepped close to Olea-Cruz and Grau as Grau explained the symbolism of items for the altar. Each represents fire, earth, air and water, she said.
Candles, Grau said, would help light the way of the departed. A wash cloth and a bar of soap are included to keep loved ones clean during the journey. Water, fruit and bread, a sweet loaf called “pan de muerto” would be included on most altars. Flowers are often used to mark the path to the afterlife, and are usually marigolds, which grow well in Mexico this time of year.
Olea-Cruz, who is from Mexico, participates in the event because she enjoys teaching others about the “beautiful tradition,” she said.
The ofrenda in her Newport News home has been up since Oct. 28 and she and her husband have added candles, foods and photos to it each day.
“For me, I can teach others some of our different traditions,” she said. “And it is a happy day for us.” Denise M. Watson, 757-446-2504, denise.watson @pilotonline.com
Eliza June Skees, 5, of Williamsburg, holds still as Kristy Clewis puts the finishing touches on her face paint on Saturday.
Maria del Rosario Olea-Cruz was Catrina, representing Lady Death, at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center on Saturday.