Day of the Dead celebrations to unite the living

Thursday, October 27th, 2016


Mexican tradition invites everyone to celebrate like there’s no tomorrow

–For most of us, death is a dirge, a day to demur, a time for sadness and solemn reflection. For Mexicans, death is a celebration, a commemoration, and with Dia de los Muertos, perhaps the perfect occasion for a parade in the streets or a party all gussied up in ghoulish costumes, with an emphasis on calaveras, skulls, often painted on your face, as if the dead could dance.

The entire county of San Luis Obispo will be marking Dia de los Muertos from Santa Maria to Paso Robles with an exceptional bevy of celebrations from Oct. 29 through Nov. 5, with charity events, concerts and even a ceremonial altar. This is the ideal time to explore Mexican and Mexican-American cultural identity and perhaps make some new friends along the way, but do not be afraid, for although death awaits, she is surely smiling.

“The word ‘death’ isn’t vocalized in New York, in Paris, in London, because it sears the lips,” wrote Mexican classical novelist Octavio Paz. “The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, makes jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his truest love.”

day of the dead

Pan de muerto (Bread of the Dead) sweet bread [Photo courtesy of Kitchen Parade]

Says April Gomez of Via Vega Vineyard, where a Dia de los Muertos dinner event and community altar are a nine-year tradition, “Certainly we’ve all experienced loss. People visit our altar to give blessings and place pictures. There’s an almond farmer who leaves almonds, a mother who places pennies. This isn’t something to be fearful of, it’s not crazy, it’s just a beautiful tradition.”

Moviegoers recently got a glimpse of a rather spectacular Dia de los Muertos parade, filmed in Mexico City in the Bond film Spectre. The holiday commemorates Nov. 1 as the Dia de los Inocentes, remembering dead children, and Nov. 2 is the celebration of adults and ancestors, similar to All Soul’s Day but a unique mestizaje, or convergence of ancient Aztec and Toltec influences with Catholic traditions.

The altar at Via Vega Vineyard becomes available early in October and remains open through Nov. 5. On Sun., Oct. 30, from 2-3 pm., there will be a special blessing ceremony in both Native American and Catholic traditions. Visitors will also get a taste of the traditional pan de muerto, Bread of the Dead, a sweet roll with bone-like decorations, flavored with cardamon and other spices. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had her own pan de muerto recipe, shaping the rolls like skulls with dancing whirligig bones.

day of the dead

Via Vega’s altar is open to all

With its Hispanic student population now at 45-percent, Cuesta College’s North County campus recently fêted Dia de los Muertos with several on-campus attractions, including a sugar skull decoration workshop and a Gallery of Altars, on view in the lobby of the Schwartz Learning Resource Center (bldg. N3100) through Nov. 3.

April Gomez has noticed that Dia de los Muertos has become more of a crossover celebration. “Watching the community,” she says, “it’s cross-cultural, different people come out. Jewish visitors have come and placed a photo on the altar, it’s not just Catholic or Mexican. Some Mexicans have said ‘we didn’t do this growing up.’ I think as a holiday it’s crossing over into the mainstream. In part the artwork being beautiful has made it more popular.”

Gomez recently lost someone very close to her and says that experiencing the altar over the past nine years has been a blessing. “I actually had a really significant lost this year when my mom died, and I went through in my head all the things I hear every year at the altar, and they helped me.”

A number of local charity organizations host annual Day of the Dead events.

Wilshire Hospice's annual Day of the Dead event happens in Mission Plaza

Wilshire Hospice’s annual Day of the Dead event happens in Mission Plaza

The Central Coast Link, with two family resource centers in Atascadero and Paso Robles, serves children and their families beset by homelessness, hunger, unemployment and other challenges. For the past nine years The Link’s annual benefit theme has been Dia de los Muertos, “honoring our past—celebrating our future.” On Nov. 6, Pear Valley Vineyard will host their dinner gala with gala tickets to include a Mexican feast, Pear Valley wine, a silent auction and live music. Proceeds from the event will fund critical programs for children and youth in San Luis Obispo County. More info here.

Wilshire Hospice sponsors its annual Dia de los Muertos this year with a traditional processional on Nov. 2 and an afternoon in San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza on Sat., Nov. 5, in collaboration with Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the Latino Outreach Council, and the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. According to the Wilshire Hospice web site, “This festive, family-friendly event has decorated altars, traditional dances, mariachi music, poets, artists and sellers, art and crafts activities, educational talks, costume and altar contests, Mexican food and beverages, decorating of sugar skulls (and more) at SLOMA, and a silent auction and raffle to benefit Wilshire Hospice patients and clients.”

The Hispanic Business Association of North County, meanwhile, offers their fifth annual Dia de los Muertos fiesta this Sat, Oct. 29 from 5-9 pm at Sculpterra Winery out on Linne Road. Info (805) 835-7900. The festivities include community altars, appetizers, dancers and live music and wine tasting.

Blood-curdling costumes are welcome.

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