Mexican Americans honor the dead this Saturday

Tulare County League of Mexican American Women hold Dia de los Muertos celebration on Nov. 2 at Visalia Cemetery


VISALIA – The dead may walk among us this Saturday, Nov. 2. And no, the date is not a typo.

Between Halloween costumes and Thanksgiving cornucopias, Latin American Catholics celebrate Dia de los Innocents on Nov. 1, recognized by the church as All Saints Day, and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on Nov. 2, known by the church as All Souls Day. Relatives march through towns all over Mexico to the local cemeteries. But instead of being a somber procession of loss, it is a festive parade of life. Large skulls (called calaveras) with exaggerated features become caricatures of the dead, bringing a light-hearted feel to the events reminding us of our own mortality. Many share humorous stories about their lost loved ones in form of comical poems and artwork.

Dia De Los Muertos is a celebration that is over 3,000 years old and a tradition that survived the conquest of the Spanish and colonization by European culture. The gates of the Land of the Dead are said to open at midnight on Oct. 31 letting loved ones return to their family for the two-day celebration.

In honor of the traditional procession, the Tulare County League of Mexican American Women is moving its Dia de los Muertos event from the streets of downtown, where it has been for the past few years, to the headstones of the Visalia Public Cemetery. The 10th annual Dia de los Muertos celebration will be held from noon to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Visalia Cemetery Pavilion. The event will kick off with traditional Aztec blessing, followed by folklorico dancers, sugar skull face painting, as well as food, and art vendors.

Elena Nava, public relations director for the Tulare County League of Mexican American Women, said traditionally people would go to the cemetery to clean and decorate their loved ones graves and tombs, also placing pictures and other items there as well. In America, families typically build shrines to the dearly departed.

“Families construct altars in memory of loved ones that have passed,” Nava said. “We offer food, drinks, and personal items to these loved ones as their journey from the land of the dead is a long one.”

The league of Mexican American Women stand next to the grand Dia de los Muertos exhibit. They will be holding their celebration this year on Nov. 2 at Visalia Cemetery. Submitted photo.

The alteras, or altars honoring the dead, are decorated with photos of the dearly departed, not to grieve their death but to celebrate their life. Gifts (called ofrendas) are left at the altar and are often sentimental trinkets, the person’s favorite food or drink reminding them of the deceased. Altars usually contain seven key elements: 1. a photo of the deceased; 2. Four candles for the four directions north-south-east-west; 3. Water for the dead’s journey; 4. An offering of pan de muertos, Mexican sweet bread made in the form of a skull; 5. Tissue paper to act as a dream catcher for their spirit; 6. Mexican marigolds (called cempasúchil); 7. And three tiers including a base and an arch, which represents the passage from life to death; 8. Copal, an incense used to clear the space of negative energy and helps the dead find their way.

Nava said La Catrina de Visalia (Lety Valencia) will also be in attendance. Valencia’s depiction of the traditional character has been a staple at the league’s events for many years. La Catrina is one of the most recognizable symbols of Dia de los Muertos. The tall female skeleton wearing a fancy hat with feathers represents the Aztecs’ goddess of death who protected departed loved ones, guiding them into the next stages of the afterlife.

Anyone interested in setting up an altar or becoming a vendor is asked to contact Virginia Arenas at 559-909-3411.

The Tulare County League of Mexican American Women is a non-profit established in 1979. The league’s mission is to promote the advancement of Mexican American women through educational attainment, leadership development, cultural enrichment, and civic action throughout Tulare County. Nava said the league carries out its mission primarily by providing scholarships to local high school seniors, who do not have to Mexican American or women to qualify. The league awards an average of nine scholarships per year worth about $1,000 each.

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