Many of us know Memorial Day to be celebrated in May.
But for people from Mexico, Dia de los Muertos was a week-long cultural celebration of remembering ancestors who have passed on. It included lighting a candle to remember loved ones, and concluded Sunday with a colorful procession and evening of native music and poems at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.
Dia de los Muertos is the Day of the Dead, which might sound morbid to many. But, for those who participate in it, or witness it, the event is colorful celebration near the Tempe border that has become the third-largest Dia de los Muertos celebration in the United States, according to www.msn.com and artist Zarco Guerrero of Mesa. Guerrero, a past winner of the Governor’s Arts Award, is known for hand-carving the wooden “Zarco’s masks” that fit the holiday.
Guerrero and his wife, Carmen, began organizing the event at Mesa’s Pioneer Park 32 years ago and this year marked the 10th year it has been held at the Desert Botanical Garden, a perfect setting for holiday as the trails, gardens and stages provide a relaxing environment.
As about 4,000 people — many from the East Valley — listened to the sounds of Mariachi music, watched performers Jen Garza and Jeff Mallari breathe fire and heard the beat of Japanese drummer Ken Koshio.
Mila Johnson, 3, of Tempe — whose face was painted to fit the holiday tradition dating back 3,000 years — she explained why she likes the event.
“To dress up and dance,” said Mila as she watched it all while sitting atop her uncle and Chandler resident Joseph Mestaz’s shoulders.
Mestaz, who was attending the event for the second year, said, “We’re just here to celebrate, to honor our dead.”
Michelle Stewart, who was at the event with her 4-year-old son who is learning about Dia de los Muertos at Awakening Seed School in Tempe, said, “It’s a beautiful celebration.”
And it is.
As part of the tradition, hundreds of people lit a candle for a loved one and also wrote down their worries or troubles on a piece of paper they would like to purge from their life, pieces of paper that were placed in a large metal pot and burned toward the end of the evening. And believe me, the many pieces of paper that were placed inside the metal pot created quite a blaze, similar to the flames that later came out of Garza’s and Mallari’s mouths after they swallowed a flame-covered sword. After the show was over, Garza would not say what compound she places in her mouth before breathing fire, only stating it was a “trade secret.”
Although I attended the event with a friend initially just for the cultural experience, it turned out that, I too, participated in the procession.
During the evening, it was only fitting that I lit a candle for my uncle, Donald Angel, someone who had once visited the Desert Botanical Garden as he and one of his friends were making their way back to Ohio from California during a cross-country trip in the late 1950s.
Donald passed away in a nursing home in Kentucky at age 81 on Oct. 31 after years of being in poor health, and his funeral service happened to be on Sunday, the day of the Dia de los Muertos procession.
He was a good-hearted person who lived a simple life and had retired from the Dayton (Ohio) Tire and Rubber Co. after working there for more than 20 years as my grandfather had. Donald, who worked at the plant with my cousins Charlie and Steve Davis, was one of the last ones to leave the factory building when the place closed its doors for good in the early part of 1980 when Dayton — once known as the “Town of 1,000 Factories,” was losing many during a deep recession. A veteran of the U.S. Army, Donald loved to go to auctions in his retirement years and befriended many he met at them. He also had an infectious laugh and would come up with nicknames for my cousins and I, something that also made us laugh all the more.
It was not only my uncle’s passing that made me think of lighting a candle for him, but also what had connected him to Desert Botanical Garden. My grandmother kept a couple scrapbooks filled with newspaper articles about the accomplishments her grandchildren sometimes were in the paper for, and also was where she kept postcards many family members had sent to her and my grandfather during an era when people would take the time to mail them.
After my mother went through some of my grandmother’s belongings a while back, she passed on a handful of postcards to me, one of which included the one Donald wrote to my grandparents from the Desert Botanical Garden, not far from where I live.
Being close to the Tempe border, the Desert Botanical Garden also is a huge attraction for many East Valley residents.
Irma Aguilar, of Chandler also was at Dia de los Muertos with her husband, Jeremy Polk and their two children, Patricia, 13, and Abriana, 9. for similar reasons as Mestaz and his family. Amid the music of a mariachi band playing the staple song, “Amore Eterno,” (“Eternal Love”), the family was attending the event for the first time and also remembering her grandmother, Irma Leon, and what her mother had passed on to her. Jeremy was remembering his mother, Sue-Ann Polk who died in 2006.
“My mom always told me stories about Dia de los Muertos in Mexico,” Irma said. “They would have big celebrations in San Luis, and this weekend, that’s where they went to celebrate it. She passed on the stories about it to me, and I always thought it was fascinating.”
“I did my daughter’s make-up,” Irma added. “Now, when we come back next year, we know what to expect. This is something we want to pass on to our children.”
Zarco Guerrero said this year, he was remembering his uncle, Pedro Guerrero, who was the photographer for famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and died last month as well as the victims from Hurricane Sandy and last year’s tsunami in Japan.
Zarco said he didn’t get a chance to write down his worries or what he’d like to purge from his life, but if he had, this is what he would have:
“In light of what’s going on politically, I’d want to see all the negativity go away,” Guerrero said. “Every year, we realize how important it is for the freedom of cultural expression to create community. We feel culture is the tool we need to spread goodwill. For me, Dia de los Muertos is not only personal form of expression, but it’s a way to pay tribute to people other than our relatives. It’s become a multi-cultural celebration and also remembering people experiencing hardships.”
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