Dia de los Muertos outgrowing its Mexican cultural roots

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imageDia de los Muertos fills Los Angeles with altars, sugar skulls and yellow marigolds on the first two days of November each year. But recently, the Mexican holiday has become increasingly popular.

The Day of the Dead is at least a two-day affair. According to the holiday’s tradition, souls of deceased children returned to earth today, and they’ll be joined by families’ other ancestors overnight.

But at the South LA marketplace Mercado la Paloma, this year’s festival is much bigger than its Mexican roots.

Celebrations, art and food are bringing people from all kinds of backgrounds together, said Gilberto Cetina. He owns Chichen Itza, a restaurant within in the Mercado.

“White people, Asian people, Indian people, Latin people… it’s really a multicultural event. it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or if you sing in English or Spanish.”

This year, Gilberto is serving a special tamale pie called Mucbil Pollo. It’s what families in the Yucatan region of Mexico used to leave with their ancestors’ bodies while their souls waited for the afterlife. They still leave it on their altars. And people love it.

“The Mayans had a tradition to leave a corn on the mouth of the body, to feed the body. And now that corn dog is a little bit more sophisticated, and it’s a tamale pie.”

Visitors have plenty to see, too. Altars for families’ ancestors line the walls, and each one uses different fabric, pictures and relics based on what their ancestors loved.

Damon Turner is the Mercado’s Arts and Cultural Program Director. He helped set up the altars and a festival this past weekend. As a kid, his family didn’t even celebrate Halloween.

But Dia de los Muertos is special, he thinks, because it recognizes such common ground: family and death.

“I think the idea of Dia de los Muertos is really like celebrating that which is taboo, typically, in America, which is death. It’s looking at death as a place of strength, a place where we can build community with each other – and, yeah, have some good food while we’re doing it.”

Dia de los Muertos ends tomorrow – but Gilberto’s tamale pie will be back at the Mercado la Paloma next year.

Dia de los Muertos at the California Science Center

As part of the closing phase of the “Mummies of the World” exhibition, the California Science Center plans to offer a special Dia de los Muertos display on Nov.1 and 2. The “Day of the Dead” is a traditional holiday celebrated in Mexico on Nov.2, and focuses on praying for loved ones who have passed away.

The California Science Center Dia de los Muertos display will feature the traditions and culture of the indigenous people of Latin America. According to a press release, the public is invited to bring non-returnable photographs of departed loved ones that will become part of the display which is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.

The History of Dia de los Muertos, courtesy of the California Science Center:

Despite the sound of the name, Dia de los Muertos is a festive, centuries-old holiday rooted in Mexican tradition, predating the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas. The holiday memorializes the lives of family and loved ones who have gone before us. In this custom, it is important to maintain good relations with the dead because it is believed it is they who intercede and bring good fortune to the living. The display will feature traditional Mexican folk art, artifacts, flowers, pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”), and photos of the departed. Guests will also find the Libro de Recuerdos (“memory book”) where they may leave heart-felt messages for the dead.

“Mummies of the World bridges the gap between the past and present through science, which increases our knowledge of the historical and cultural record around the world,” said William Harris, Senior Vice President of Development and Marketing, California Science Center Foundation. “Dia de los Muertos bridges the past and present in a very different way through culture and family traditions.”

Photographs donated for the Dia de los Muertos display should be small to mid-sized, placed in a self-standing frame and only feature the departed loved-one. Photos and frames will not be returned.

The Dia de los Muertos display will be available for free public viewing November 1-2, 2010. To see the Mummies of the World exhibition, tickets are required and can be purchased in advance at http://www.califoriasciencecenter.org.  For more information, visit http://www.mummiesoftheworld.com.

Mummies of the World makes its Midwest debut at the Milwaukee Public Museum on December 17, 2010.