Día de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated in Mexico that is about death, but it is not a sad nor scary celebration. The purpose of this holiday is to celebrate the lives of those who have died. Families create ofrendas, or altars, that symbolize the lives of their ancestors. These altars are decorated with a picture of a person, religious elements, incense burners and personal objects that belonged to an ancestor.
Families also celebrate the holiday by making pan de muertos, day of the dead bread. This bread is also placed on the altar as an offering to ancestors. Afterward, families gather together and eat bread to celebrate the holiday.
Celebraciones de la Gente is an annual event held by Flagstaff’s Nuestras Raíces organization to celebrate Day of the Dead. Nuestras Raíces, which translates to “our roots,” promotes Hispanic culture in Flagstaff by organizing events that honor Hispanic traditions.
The organization was formed by families who helped build Flagstaff. These families worked together to begin this organization and share their culture with the community.
Nuestras Raíces secretary Dolores Cordova said Celebraciones de la Gente is an annual event that has been going on for 17 years. Each celebration, Nuestras Raíces partners with the Museum of Northern Arizona to host the event.
“We’re so grateful that the museum works with us to host this special event,” Cordova said. “I think this event is a great opportunity for people to understand more about Mexican culture. A lot of people think Dia de los Muertos is scary because it celebrates dead people, but it’s not scary at all. It is a time to remember the people we had in our lives and honor them with the altars.”
At the event, Nuestras Raíces decorates the museum with altars, hosts mariachi performances, face painting, sugar skull painting classes and booths for vendors. Cordova said the altars are what members of the group like to work on most. Members of Nuestras Raíces create the altars and put them on display for guests.
To fundraise for Celebraciones de la Gente, Nuestras Raíces hosts a party each summer. At this event, the organization provides food and music for the community.
“The tardeadas [party] are a key part in creating Celebraciones de la Gente,” Cordova said. “I think the community enjoys this event because of the entertainment. We have a mariachi band and folklórico dancers that the audience loves. It’s really great to see that the community enjoys what we do, and that they get to learn more about our culture.”
This year was artist Rick Pacheco’s third time participating as a vendor at Celebraciones de la Gente. Apart from selling his art at the celebration, Pacheco also designed the T-shirt for this year’s event.
“I’ve been creating art for about four years now,” Pacheco said. “I’m very proud to sell my art at events like this, because my paintings are mainly about Hispanic culture. I’ve heard lots of people say that things about Hispanic culture are strange. I’ve had people comment on how they find the female skeletons — catrinas — scary. Although people think this, I still find it important to represent important aspects like this in my art.”
Apart from paintings, Pacheco also creates talavera tile and pottery. Talavera is a type of ceramic that was created in Mexico after the arrival of the Spaniards. The talavera Pacheco creates features flowers and Day of the Dead skeletons.
Although Pacheco is not a member of Nuestras Raíces, he said he is thankful for the opportunity to experience working with the group, even if it is only for one event.
“Organizations like these are especially important, because they keep the Hispanic culture alive,” Pacheco said. “Hispanic culture is one of the most beautiful, in my opinion. I don’t think we get enough credit for how amazing and unique our culture is. Day of the Dead may seem like a strange or scary celebration, but when you think about it, it’s just a day to remember the special people we had in our lives.”
Hermanas United for Change, a women’s Latinx group at NAU, also participated as vendors at the event. Sophomore club co-president Julie Joseph said their group participates at events that focus on the importance of Hispanic culture, like Celebraciones de la Gente.
“In the past, we’ve created altars, but this year we decided to set up a booth at Celebraciones de la Gente,” Joseph said. “We created floral headbands to sell, because they are such a staple for this holiday. Many women wear these for the holiday, because they resonate with what the catrinas wear. We thought it would be an accessory that women would enjoy and that it would remind people of the holiday.”
Although Day of the Dead may be seen as a strange holiday, groups like Nuestras Raíces share the importance of their culture with the community.