Winning the day
Dia de los Muertos events shine light on Latinx community
People across Mexico and the U.S. celebrated Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, last weekend.
On Saturday Nov. 2, thousands in the Reno community celebrated the holiday at three events around town. At Reno Little Theater, there was an inaugural Dia de los Muertos celebration. At the University of Nevada, Reno, it was the first celebration of the holiday since 2016. And at the Holland Project, it was also an occasion for the opening of a fittingly themed art exhibition.
For some, the Dia de los Muertos festivities were a familiar celebration. For others, it was a chance to learn more about what—despite its name—is actually a multi-day Mexican holiday during which families and friends gather to celebrate with food and music as they remember and pray for loved ones who've died by creating altars called ofrendas—“offerings” in Spanish—to honor the departed.
Attendees at all three events had the opportunity to view ofrendas on exhibition. Traditionally, these altars are decorated with photos of the departed alongside candles and marigold flowers and things like trinkets and the favorite foods and drinks of the people being honored. These offerings are believed to encourage visits from the departed souls.
Some of the ofrendas on display were in keeping with tradition, like one built by the young daughter of Rafael Hernandez.
“She sees it at home,” he said, and decided she wanted to show the broader community what it's about.
“And that's keeping the memory of our family members that have passed away alive,” Hernandez said.
Other ofrendas were less traditional, like one at the celebration at Reno Little Theater set up by Tom Steyer campaigners to honor Mother Earth and bring awareness to climate change. Another, at UNR, honored children who've died in Immigration and Custom Enforcement detention centers.
The newer style of ofrendas honoring more than just close family and friends are an evolution of the tradition, said J. Diego Zarazúa, coordinator of education, research and outreach for the University of Nevada, Reno's, Latino Research Center, which organized the event.
“And I don't think that it takes away from the overall essence of Dia de los Muertos and what an altar or shrine is,” he said. “A shrine is exactly that—an ofrenda for somebody who has passed away. And you're doing it in the best way possible, to think of the things they like and bring happy memories on there in order for them to come back with us for one day and kind of celebrate who they were in the best way possible.”
Mario DelaRosa, owner and editor of Ahora Latino Journal and one of the organizers of the event at Reno Little Theater, agreed with the sentiment of evolution.
“Today, you can, let's say, honor or remember anyone you want,” he said. “It can be a celebrity. It can be a group of people you want to remember and give your respects to. This tradition has been evolving through the years.”
Both Zarazúa and DelaRosa see introducing the broader community to these evolving traditions as about more than just fun and education. They believe it can be a way to foster inclusivity and acceptance in today's tense political climate, wherein Latinx people are often the targets of political actors and hate groups.
“That was the biggest highlight and the biggest fulfilling moment of this event on Saturday—not just seeing the number of people who came out to it, but seeing the inclusion of the different, diverse families and community members who were here on campus to learn and to celebrate the heritage of the larger minority population that exists here,” Zarazúa said.
“We are not trying to send a political message here,” Delarosa said. “But when we are doing this, we are manifesting our culture, giving it a voice, putting ourselves in front of the community—and everyone is seeing us. And they see this is a good thing for the community, because this creates a bridge between different groups, between different communities. The theme is something that we all share, which is the death of somebody we love. … So we are sending a message that we are here. We have this tradition which represents family, love, spirituality and all of these good things. We are answering to these attacks with a good thing, I'd say with a white flag—to the attacks and to the things that the president and others have said against us.”
A third Dia de Los Muertos event was held at Holland Project and featured traditional foods, art and ofrendas, as well as the opening of Still Here, a new exhibition of art by Felicia “Lucha” Perez.
Perez, who moved to Reno in 2012 after more than a decade as a high school history teacher in Los Angeles, is the innovation director for the Center for Story-based Strategy—a group that offers training and support to social justice oranziations—and a board member of the Sylvia Rivera Center for Social Justice, which produced Holland's event. She's also an artist and channels her experiences of living with a rare autoimmune disease into her work. With Still Here, Perez tells a narrative about living since 2012 with the disease, which causes tumors to wrap around her optic nerve and brain. And as an a Mexican American with deep ties to the traditions of Dia de Los Muertos, she thought the holiday would make a fitting opening date.
“I was thinking about things and was, like, ‘Well, it's All Souls' Day,'” she said. “And All Souls Day is not quite All Saints' Day. It's the day for people who have not yet transitioned into a new life or gone to Heaven or gone onto some other sort of world. … Some people call it purgatory. Some people call it just this ‘waiting moment.' Some people celebrate it with Dia de los Muertos, with the two days. It's about how people are still here if we want them to still be here. It's not some sort of punishment. It's about a celebration of someone's life and keeping them in our lives and our community if we can continue to remember them and their stories and what they contributed. So it felt like the perfect sort of moment.”
In eight years, Perez has had three tumors, none cancerous but all requiring surgery. She's undergone many rounds of radiation and is on a regular schedule of chemotherapy permanently. The art in her exhibition speaks to the challenges that come with this—bottles and bottles of pills, clothes worn prematurely thin from chemo drugs leaving the body, the cost of health care under a broken and embattled system. One piece is a luchadore mask affixed beneath a radiation mask.
“So my familial name is Lucha, which in Spanish means ‘to struggle,' and a luchadore is a wrestler,” Perez said. “So, Mexican culture is really into luchadores and Mexican wrestling, and my whole life I've just been surrounded by it because of my nickname.”
It's a fitting one considering Perez's fight to be resilient in the face of her disease. Resilience, she said, is something she values and sees reflected not just in herself but in the Latinx community at large.
“I feel like Reno's Latinx community this last year has had cultural responses to the hate that has been happening on a national level—to invite people here locally to not have to only think that there's one side to be on … and that the side of justice of love of humanity is worth it,” she said. “We have sweet churros. We have great music. We have wonderful dancing. And we ourselves as people are resilient AF—and you can be as resilient with us.”