Once a year when he was young, Edgardo García and his family would travel from Mexico City to the rural area of Cuaotitlan, the home of his mother’s family, to tend his grandfather’s grave. It was more than housekeeping or placing flowers.
“It was not just a ritual,” García said. “It was a family celebration.”
On the first two days of November, families across Mexico celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. They come together to build altars honoring their loved ones and find comfort in their memories. It is a tradition with roots that run deep, past European colonization and the imposition of Catholicism to the old ways of Mexico’s Indigenous peoples.
That history gave García direction when he moved to the United States in the early 1990s, a young man in his 20s attempting to navigate the racism and discrimination he faced in Los Angeles. García left California for the Pacific Northwest and landed in Seattle, where he came upon a group of local Latinx people who threw a Día de los Muertos event every year. Adrift in this new world, sometimes wondering why he had even come, Mexico’s traditions gave him an anchor. He became engrossed in Día de los Muertos, learning the deeper origin stories of the traditions in which he had long participated.
“I’m proud of where I came from, even though my mother, father and grandfather never told me their story,” García said. “I started reading it through someone else and I was like, ‘Damn man, this is good.’”
Now in his seventh year producing the event, which took place in the Seattle Center Armory on Oct. 27 and Oct. 28,
García works with other members of the community to carve out a space for Mexican traditions and culture, preserving it for young people and introducing it to newcomers.
“We are rescuing this tradition,” García said.
Día de los Muertos traditionally falls on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, known in Catholic traditions as All Saints and All Souls days. Despite its proximity to Oct. 31 and the skulls and skeletons that make up much of its visual aesthetic, the celebration has nothing to do with Halloween.
Bringing in people unfamiliar with Día de los Muertos and teaching them about the tradition is exciting, García said.
“I’m so proud of the rich culture and history, and I want to share a little bit of it so they know we also have something valuable,” García said.
But the celebration is not for outsiders alone.
García and other organizers see it as a mission to teach young Latinx people about their roots, cultures and traditions to give them a sense of identity as they move through an often hostile world.
“Especially as an immigrant, you can get lost, forget your traditions,” García said. “That’s what this is all about, connecting with ourselves.”
The desire to preserve the culture and pass traditions on to new generations is strong but faces systemic challenges. Marginalized communities historically cut out of Seattle’s economic success find themselves displaced by rising rents, pushed into outlying communities like Tacoma and Kent. It is a concern that clearly weighs on García as he sees his community forced farther afield and affluent newcomers pouring in.
Over the weekend, at least, those concerns were put aside as a host of volunteers and organizers opened the doors to welcome Seattleites to their Día de los Muertos celebration. García was everywhere, popping up at one point at a block-printing booth to relieve a volunteer who, at 3:30 p.m., had yet to take lunch.
To make the print, people drew patterns onto small squares of thin tracing paper using graphite pencils. They pressed those drawings onto blocks of soft linoleum that felt like powdered rubber — the design transferred to the linoleum like newsprint on Silly Putty. With the pattern now on the block, the artists took small carving tools and cut into the soft surface along the transferred lines. Then they rolled black ink onto the blocks and pressed them onto a piece of paper, the design now etched out in white space against the black ink background.
Block printing is used a lot in Día de los Muertos celebrations, explained volunteer Liz Moyer of the Artisan Craftsman Supply, but people are free to deviate from traditional iconography and make whatever they want.
“We’ve even had birth announcements,” Moyer said before going to lunch.
Día de los Muertos is steeped in graphic symbolism. Around the corner from the block printing table, a group of mostly women fashioned marigolds out of layers of colorful paper that they folded forward and back like a fan, cinched at the center and curved into a floral shape.
Marigolds are the flower of Día de los Muertos, adorning altars and women’s hair. People believe that marigolds guide spirits to their family’s altars with their bright colors and aromatic scent. There the spirits find brightly painted sugar skulls that represent individuals alongside photos, favorite dishes served up in cazuelas, candles and paper decorations through which souls are said to enter.
Here, the fingerprints of colonization become apparent. Europeans and the Catholic Church tried to stamp out Indigenous traditions, at one point banning the use of amaranth, a native grain, García said. They failed to destroy it in its entirety, eventually merging the celebration of the dead with All Saints and All Souls days.
The Italians made their mark through the use of sugar that forms the brightly painted skulls, while the French influence appeared in the use of leavened bread to make the sweet pan de los muertos (bread of the dead), a rich recipe scented with anise and orange zest.
Still, the old ways remain hiding in plain sight — in Central Mexico loaves of pan de los muertos are round to signify the circle of life and decorated with another circle on the bread that represents the human body and bones in a cross shape. The bones appear to be a cross, but aren’t, García said. Instead, they point to the four cardinal directions.
Organizers set up altars in a quiet hallway away from the Armory’s stage where a live band played behind dancers in traditional regalia to the delight of the audience. There, groups had decorated altars to celebrate individuals, but also to honor the memories of those lost in the horrific repression that Mexicans have faced over more than a century of rule by military-backed governments.
One table held paper bags with a red star on a white background and the initials E.Z.L.N., which stands for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), one for each person killed during the 1997 attack on the village of Acteal by a paramilitary group called The Red Mask.
On another, 43 skulls, for the college students who disappeared in 2014, abducted from Igualla, Guerrero by police officers working with criminal gangs. Their fate remains unknown. Next to it, a table for “Diez Matanzas en México,” or “10 slaughters in Mexico,” that describe a history of state violence on Indigenous peoples, students and workers.
Augustina Roman sat on a folding chair next to the displays, welcoming people into the space. Roman runs a program called Latino Youth Action that seeks to support and empower young Latinx people in the Seattle area by connecting them with their culture and community to help them thrive.
Those youth created their own altar for the event, Roman explained, and there are three layers — the first symbolizing the underworld, the second earth and the third heaven.
“The third connects to the divinity,” Roman said in Spanish.
As she spoke, another woman, Claribel Hernandez, approached. Hernandez was recently back from a trip to Oaxaca visiting family, and wore a loose black shirt, the neckline embroidered with vibrant red flowers that she had bought while she was there.
In Oaxaca, she said, her family would travel to her godparents’ house bringing bread, chocolate, sweets and other offerings for the dead — mole, a rich sauce flavored of chocolate and chilis, and beef soup always made an appearance.
Many individuals and families came in traditional regalia or clothes that represented their heritage and roots. Those that wanted to acquire some could visit Beatriz Huerta, manager of Friduchis Mexican Mercado.
Huerta’s pop-up table was a riot of color. Dresses, bags, blouses and traditional belts adorned one half of the display, while other artesanias took up the other end. She travels to Mexico twice a year to buy directly from local producers, and the women who make the clothing are survivors of domestic violence.
It’s important to support Mexican artists, and “maintain the culture,” Huerta said in Spanish.
Gathering the merchants, performers, volunteers and artists for this two-day event takes an entire year of preparation. García and the rest of the committee will rest for a month or so after the Armory reverts back to its usual life as a food court and gathering space, and then preparations for next year’s Día de los Muertos will begin. The team will review the previous year and spend months securing grants, donations and contributions to fund the event and volunteers to run it.
The community members who support Día de los Muertos are lifeblood of the effort, García said.
“It’s not just me, there are so many other people behind me,” he said. “They support everything from building and painting, putting up after the workshops, spreading the word. Bringing a plate of food or conversation — it helps keep us grounded.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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