*originally published by The Santa Clara on October 30, 2014.
Dia de los Muertos festivities greatly influence Santa Clara area
Everyone dies – it is inevitable. While many mourn the looming end, there are those who rejoice in the great change.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is Nov. 1 and 2. The two-day holiday addresses death and celebrates the lives of departed loved ones. In honor of the day, The San Jose Multicultural Artists Guild hosted their 17th Annual Día de los Muertos festival on Sunday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Downtown San Jose. Because of the large Latino community in the the Silicon Valley, the celebration is a day for the community.
“It’s a very community-oriented day,” said local artist Sonia Orbán-Price. “Everybody has lost someone here and everybody wants to honor their memory. We’re human. We live and we die.”
The festival began with a traditional procession, or comparsa. Dancers, stilt walkers and skeleton puppets made their way from City View Plaza on Market Street to the library, leaving marigold petals in their track. When they arrived, various cultural artists performed songs, skits and dances. In the background, over 30 vendors sold colorful arts, crafts, food and various goods. The fifth floor of the library housed 20 altars, or ofrendas, dedicated to the dead.
One special ofrenda was dedicated to Edgar Alberto “Zancudo” Sanchez, the former executive director of the San Jose Multicultural Artist Guild. He was also the co-founder of Teatro Familia Aztlán which performed at the festival.
Sanchez left a legacy of artistic inspiration for his colleagues and aimed to inspire the younger generations to be proud of their cultural heritage.
“What I like a lot is the young people here,” said Adrian Vargas, a former theater professor at Santa Clara. “It’s nice to see all the kids in the costumes and the calavera (skull) masks, parading through downtown, not trick or treating. They contribute to the day.”
Tears filled Vargas’ eyes as remembered his friend and colleague. There was a bittersweet feeling knowing that Sanchez was now on the receiving end of the holiday. Although the day was both celebratory and vibrant, there was a natural somberness that hung about.
Through her work, Orbán-Price tries to address those feelings and display the beauty within death. Her paintings regularly feature attractive women with skeletal faces or scenes of loving families depicted in the afterlife.
“A lot of people fear death and the holiday, but to me it’s a beautiful thing,” said Orbán-Price. “I try to expose the beauty of death and life together. Death is not scary; it’s something to be celebrated and to look forward to and just remember those who have gone on with great beauty and great souls.”
She has been working on a painting dedicated to her aunt who passed away from cancer. In it, her aunt is transforming into monarch butterflies. Because of their November migration, the monarchs often symbolize a journey to another world.
Monarchs, skulls, candles and marigolds are symbols of the Mexican holiday. Skulls are a universal symbol for death. Many participants painted bright, colorful skulls upon their faces. Meanwhile, candles adorn the ofrendas to light the way to the spirit world for the departed. Marigolds in particular are an essential part of the holiday.
“It’s a flower that represents honoring the dead,” said Elena Robles, a dance anthropologist whose dance team performed at the festival. Robles has been involved since the festival’s first year. “It has a unique scent, unique color. Even after it dries, the color is still vibrant.”
“The flower is symbolic of life and death. It is a desert flower that can flourish with little water. It succeeds in the hardest of times,” she added.
Sandy Mariscal, a 2004 Santa Clara graduate, and her family are no stangers to challenging times. They are facing mortality on a daily basis. Iliana Farias, her 8 year-old niece, is battling leukemia.
Her family set up a booth to raise funds and in honor of one of Farias’ favorite holidays. Artists donated crafts and paintings to be auctioned. While many questioned the morbidity of participating in a festival that celebrates death, the very thing they are trying to evade, Farias is teaching her family that the true meaning of the holiday is to remember past family and friends and to celebrate the lives they lived.
“Death is a part of life,” said Mariscal. “We come to terms with it. Move past it and then realize that it’s every moment that you have to celebrate. What better way to live life than celebrating?”