News: Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life
Story by Sgt. Richard Andrade
EL PASO, Texas - Every time I drive past downtown El Paso, I notice murals painted on freeway columns near Lincoln Park visible from Interstate 10 and wonder who painted them. On Nov. 4, I took my wife and son to the presentation of the newest mural and Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration held at Lincoln Park.
Throughout the year, there are different events presented by the Lincoln Park Conservation Committee. The family-friendly events include Cesar Chavez Day in March, to remember the life and legacy of the late Chicano civil rights leader. In September there is a Chicano art and car show celebrating Lincoln Park Day. And at the end of the year, there is La Virgen de Guadalupe Day, in remembrance of the day the Virgin Mary appeared to indigenous peasant Juan Diego on Dec. 12, 1531. The annual Dia de los Muertos celebration in November focuses on gathering the El Paso community in at outdoor setting to honor and pray for lost loved ones.
Children rode their bicycles while others played handball next to the brightly-painted freeway columns, each mural depicting a different theme. As we walked from our car toward the newest mural, I noticed a woman wearing a white dress with her face painted in the image of a skull. Halloween was over but people dress in costumes and have skulls painted on their faces for Dia de los Muertos, usually celebrated on the first two days of November.
At Lincoln Park low-rider cars were parked side by side, artists had set up booths to sell their wares, and people set up decorated altars in tribute to deceased family members. Oldies music could be heard from loud speakers and there was even a face-painting booth where a small girl was having a skull painted on her face. I can’t say I have ever celebrated Dia de los Muertos, but being in El Paso I decided to witness it firsthand.
In Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried and decorate gravesites with flowers and candles. The intent is to visit the souls of their loved ones so they can hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. They honor their dead by setting up altars containing their favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos of the departed. I saw people set up personal altars for their loved ones: each one had its own personal touch. I noticed the small details like various candles, incense, a plate of tamales and a bottle of whiskey in front of a framed picture.
After taking a picture of one altar that had lights, food offerings, and incense all atop a blanket, the woman who decorated the altar offered me some Pan de Muertos, Spanish for Bread of the Dead. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the "spiritual essence" of the food brought to them by their family members. It is traditionally eaten at the gravesite or altar of the deceased. I had never eaten it before, but since it was free I didn’t want to offend the kind woman. It was soft, sweet and topped with sugar bone-looking pieces. It was good, but I wished I had a glass of milk to go with it.
Every mural painted on the concrete pillars had a different theme depicted on it. One mural had the image of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another had an eagle flying above the twin towers commemorating the attack on the World Trade Center September 11, 2001. Standing in front of a mural is better than seeing it for a split second from the interstate. Looking up at the details of the newest brightly-painted mural I recognized the image of the skull smiling down at us because it is often used in various artistic manifestations as a holiday symbol of the Day of the Dead.
As a Mexican-American, I grew up surrounded by Mexican imagery, be it a calendar hanging in the kitchen with the image of an Aztec warrior on it, or playing Loteria, a Mexican card game similar to bingo. To this day I enjoy photography and have an appreciation of art history. The muralist, Gabriel S. Gaytan, told me it is homage to an image called “La Calavera Catrina,” or The Elegant Skull, created by the late Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1910.
I have been in the U.S. Army for more than 12 years and have experienced different cultures while stationed overseas. I have been stationed at Fort Bliss since Jan. 2010 and enjoy the fact that El Paso has a predominantly Hispanic community. Being so close to Mexico, I like the fact that I can speak Spanish if I am out in the city. Gaytan told me when he was growing up, his parents always told him to be proud to be 'Mexicano.' The native El Pasoan said he has been drawing since he was in high school and through the years his artwork has reflected a Chicano theme. He said by painting the murals he and other artists try to maintain and celebrate their culture and heritage.
“If you are not proud of yourself, you are not going to do anything with dignity,” said Gaytan. “You have to be proud of who you are and where you come from.”
As the sun began to set, performers dressed in customary Aztec garb began to chant and dance in front of the newly unveiled mural. The dancers had brilliant colored uniforms with feathered headdresses, some played musical instruments. They had skulls painted on their faces and formed a circle as they danced the customary Danza Azteca. One dancer ran around the circle spraying a flammable liquid and set it ablaze, but the rest did not skip a beat as they kept dancing over and around the fire to the applause of the crowd surrounding them. Having never seen that before, I found the dance very spiritual, thinking how these men and women maintain a tradition that has been part of Mexican culture for centuries.
We left the park after the dance presentation and as we drove back home, I felt a stronger sense of connection to my past and its rich cultural history. My family and I had a good time and look forward to taking part in the next gathering at Lincoln Park, which is unofficially known as Chicano Park to El Pasoans.