For a Merced family, All Hallow’s Eve doesn’t mean going to door for a candy rush or dressing up as a princess or pirate: It means celebrating the memory of those who have died and honoring their lives.
“We don’t celebrate Halloween,” said Teresa Nunez. “We celebrate Day of the Dead.”
During a celebration of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center on Saturday evening, Nunez created an altar for her brother-in-law, who died about a month ago. Nunez attended with her 5-year-old daughter, Natalia, both wearing indigenous dresses and their faces painted with the traditional sugar-skull makeup.
Passing on cultural traditions such as Día de los Muertos to her daughter, Nunez said, is important so she knows her roots.
“I like to bring her to events like this so she can grow up in the culture,” said Nunez, 50. “It’s very important to teach culture.”
I like to bring her to events like this so she can grow up in the culture It’s very important to teach culture.
Teresa Nunez, 50, Merced resident
Día de los Muertos originated thousands of years ago and is an ancient indigenous tradition in Latin American countries, especially Mexico, said Martha Acevedo, an organizer of the event. People go to cemeteries to celebrate the day by cleaning the graves of those who have passed and leaving them offerings such as flowers and their favorite foods.
The altars set up by local artists included pan dulce, or Mexican sweet bread; pictures; candles; flowers; beverages; brightly painted skulls; and paintings.
Acevedo said the traditions are “therapeutic” for her because it allows her to remember her family members in a positive light, instead of feeling sad or upset.
“Too many people don’t know what the holiday is really about,” she said. “It’s something that will spark interest. This is the first time it’s been so elaborate.”
Food was catered by J&R’s Tacos and dozens of people lined up to have their faces painted. UC Merced musicians played indigenous music for the hundreds of people who came to celebrate.
Many people are lost in the mainstream culture, Acevedo said, and keeping the tradition alive and teaching youths about it is the main thing she takes away from Día de los Muertos.
“It’s about remembering good things about people and coming to a resolution with the people who have passed,” Acevedo said. “I want to pass this onto my children, grandchildren and friends.”
It’s about remembering good things about people and coming to a resolution with the people who have passed. I want to pass this onto my children, grandchildren and friends.
Martha Acevedo, an organizer for Día de los Muertos
According to organizer Charles Perez, this was the first year art was featured from all over California, including Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
UC Merced student Lucia Viveros said she enjoyed the art and looking at all the different altars. She said before coming she knew a little bit about Day of the Dead and now she has more insight into what the celebration is all about.
“It’s amazing,” the 19-year-old history and sociology student said. “It’s so bright and sparkly, and I love the live music.”
Perez said the unique thing about the celebration is it isn’t like Western culture “where we fear death. Life and death is the full circle. It’s about celebrating life and death.”
The celebration has been in Merced off and on since 1996, event organizer Ruben Sanchez said, and the past three years it has really grown.
“When it first started, people were more afraid of death,” Sanchez said. “After two long wars and 9/11, people began to realize people die and this is a way to get closer with loved ones to remember them.”
This is Sanchez’s last year as an organizer and he said he wants people to realize that it isn’t Halloween and to feel this is a good and positive celebration.
“It’s a colorful and cheerful day of remembrance,” he said.