Carmen Guerrero knows the traditions of Dia de Los Muertos are not always easy for an outsider to understand.
The Day of the Dead celebration includes lavishly decorated altars, skulls made out of sugar, a funeral procession and pan de muerto — bread of the dead.
But the celebration hosted annually in Mesa has opened dialogue between two cultures on how to remember the deceased, Guerrero said.
“We have had countless Anglo people come and thank us for showing them how to talk about their loved ones,” she said. “Because we remember them with songs and food and flowers.”
Dia de Los Muertos is one of two upcoming events in Mesa that highlight positive contributions of Hispanic culture — something residents say has been overshadowed by the debate over illegal immigration.
Late October will bring the 5th Annual Latino Town Hall, a half-day event that brings hundreds together to discuss issues affecting Mesa Latinos.
In early November, the Mesa Arts Center will host a two-day Día de Los Muertos celebration, a decades-old tradition held annually in the city until last year.
“There are a lot of positive contributions our culture has to give. These are beautiful aspects of our community,” said artist and activist Guerrero. “These things are being overlooked.
“The illegal thing is overshadowing the cultural thing and it’s hurting the community in more ways than we can tell.”
These events come at a time of cultural tension in the city.
In a recent survey of a neighborhood near Southern Avenue and Center Street, 75 percent of respondents said they felt “welcomed and included.”
“But it was in the data there was some conflict between old neighbors and new neighbors,” said Mesa Diversity Director Mary Berumen.
Written comments in the surveys revealed strong feelings about the “Spanish people,” “loud Mexican music,” and “the white people’s life,” though few residents signed their names to such complaints.
District 4 City Councilman Kyle Jones said people have a hard time separating issues of illegal immigration and culture clash.
“An all-inclusive community would be wonderful, but as long as the illegal immigration issue is so high-profile, it makes it a lot more difficult to address the social cooperation we need to have,” he said.
Jones added that he was hesitant to even comment on the topic because people might misinterpret his remarks.
“On a topic this heated people are going to jump to conclusions and make it whatever they want it to be,” he said.
Mesa artist Zarco Guerrero said he grew up at the end of the segregated era in Mesa — his 1970 graduation from Westwood High School was segregated — and that racism mellowed out “on the surface” in the following years.
“But with the changing demographics, the racist attitudes are really coming to the surface in the policies implemented by local governments, and it’s a source of absolute shame,” he said.
A U.S. Census report released in August showed that Maricopa County added more Hispanic people to its population between 2005 and 2006 than any other county in the country.
Topics up for discussion at the Latino Town Hall, sponsored by the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, include economic development, education and leadership.
The event is important because it shows immigration is not the only issue out there, said Deanna Villanueva-Saucedo, an organizer of the event.
“Anything to do with Hispanics somehow gets tainted with the illegal immigration issue,” she said. “One of the important features of the event is to drive home to the larger community that there are a variety of individuals and a variety of interests.”
Some of the key topics at the town hall will be a possible East Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the status of a proposed day-labor center in Mesa.
Villanueva-Saucedo said participants do not have to be Latino to attend.
“We don’t card anybody. We invite everybody to participate,” she said.
For years, a celebration for Día de Los Muertos was held at Pioneer Park in Mesa.
Budget constraints sent the celebration to Chandler last year, but organizers in the community and at the MAC emphasized the need to have it in Mesa again.
“It was always very well-attended and brought the community out of the nearby neighborhood to celebrate,” said Walter Morlock, arts center spokesman. “Just to have it within walking distance is important.”
MAC executive director Johann Zietsman pointed out that the arts center is funded by sales tax, and therefore by everyone who lives in Mesa.
“Politics are less important to us,” he said. “It’s about how people live and express themselves. They’re a part of our fiber.”
Dia de Los Muertos in Mesa:
* Dia de Los Muertos Altars Youth Workshop
Artist Carmen Guerrero teaches how to make altars from wooden boxes and collage materials.
When: Saturday, Oct. 20, 10 a.m. to noon
Where: Arizona Museum for Youth, 35 N. Robson Street
Cost: Free with admission to museum
* Altar de Muertos contest
Altars can be traditional or contemporary and the winner’s work will be displayed at Mesa Contemporary Arts galleries.
When: Oct. 31
Contest rules: www.mesaartscenter.com
* Altar viewing
A display of traditional Dia de los Muertos altar by artist Virginia Aguero
When: Oct. 23 through Nov. 10
Where: Arizona Museum of Natural History
Altars created by youth and area families
When: Beginning Oct. 20
Where: Arizona Museum for Youth
* Dia de Los Muertos Celebration
A two-day event featuring a community altar, art workshops, live music, food, Hispanic arts and crafts vendors, children’s activities and a procession to honor the dead.
When: Nov. 3, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Nov. 4, noon to 4:30 p.m.
Where: Mesa Arts Center
5th Annual Mesa Latino Town Hall
Brings community together to discuss issues affecting Latinos in Mesa. This year’s theme: Creating pathways to success. Event includes breakfast and breakout sessions on economic development, neighborhoods, leadership, and education for parents, teachers and administrators. Sessions followed by awards for outstanding leaders, lunch and a business expo tent.
When: Saturday, Oct. 27, 7:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.
Where: Mesa Community College, 1833 W. Southern Ave.
Registration: Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens Web site, www.mahcaz.org.