The central atrium of the National Museum of the American Indian was filled with colorful lights this weekend as sunlight streamed through banners of ‘papel picado,’ cut paper, strung up to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. Day of the Dead: A Family Festival, is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Latino Center and Michigan State University’s School of Journalism and is hosted by the NMAI.
For the entirety of the weekend, the museum was filled with ofrendas, which are traditional altars for souls of deceased ancestors. Elaborately decorated with intricate sugar skulls, photographs, candles, personal objects and cempasúchil–marigold flowers–the ofrendas demonstrated to visitors like myself the ways a traditional home altar could be decorated.
Upon arrival to the museum, visitors were greeted by rows of tables with activities led by visiting artists and museum staff. David Michael Amoroso, a papel picado artist, led demonstrations of how to cut papel picado; and Verónica Castillo, a Mixtec ceramic artist, discussed her elaborate cranias, ceramic skulls adorned with details like flowers or butterflies.
Castillo explained how the skull with caterpillars and butterflies crawling out of and around it represents the transition from death to life, noting that death is not seen as the end of life in her culture.
Monarch butterflies were a central theme for this year’s Day of the Dead festival, due to their long migration south in the fall. “Flight of the Monarch/Return of the Soul,” an Oculus Virtual Reality 360 animation experience, was a feature of the festival. Attendees wore a virtual reality headset to experience a monarch butterfly’s flight with a twist: at the end of the flight, the butterfly lands in a cemetery decorated for Day of the Dead, meeting ‘La Catrina,’ a traditional image of an extravagantly dressed woman skeleton.
In between the ongoing displays and activities, assorted performances and talks were given.
Grupo los Tecuanes, a Manassas-based traditional dance group, performed Danza de los Tecuanes, Dance of the Jaguar. In traditional sombreros with oversized masks, the dancers performed to music heavily featuring drums and woodwinds, telling the story of the quest to kill the mighty jaguar. Each individual dance in the performance carried a different significance. The first dance, for example, is typically performed during religious celebrations as an expression of faith, asking for protection while hunting the jaguar.
Later, Carmen Lomez Garza, a Chicana artist, described the inspiration for her artwork depicting scenes in Mexican-American life. She showed slides of her work, ranging from 48’x14’ metal cutouts designed to mimic the papel picado of ofrendas, to a painting of a quinceanera party outside a Catholic church in San Francisco.
Garza’s art tells stories from her own life and from her culture. Opening her talk with an anecdote about being punished for speaking Spanish at her high school in Texas, she explained how art has served for her as a process of healing from discrimination against the Chicano community.
“I needed to re-celebrate my personal history,” Garza said during her talk.
Re-celebrating culture through the re-celebration of life that is Dia de los Muertos was a common thread of the work of all of the artists present at the museum. Through creating artwork that celebrates their culture, whether Garza’s paintings or Grupo los Tecuanes dances, artists can hope to educate and share with others their traditions and history.
Featured Photo Credit: Visitors admire an elaborate ofrenda, decorated with sugar skulls, marigolds, candles, and photographs. Images of monarch butterflies, representing the return of deceased souls, are particularly present throughout this ofrenda. (Katrina Schmidt/Bloc Reporter)
Katrina Schmidt is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.