By Wicker Van Orsdel
The Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos (and DoD in blog language) is a Mexican and Mexican-American celebration of dead ancestors which occurs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 (coinciding with the Roman Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day). Several years ago, my good friend Gary McKay encouraged me to attend the ‘DoD’ Celebration at the Des Moines Art Center and I haven’t missed it since. Eleven years ago, he, along with Paula Hutton McKinley, instituted this event at the Art Center and cultivated it into a wonderful not-to-be-missed tradition. Plans for the festival are made throughout the year and many volunteers donate hundreds of hours to make the event a success. (All those skeletons don’t just walk in there on their own.) With the help of people like Vince Valdez, Tammy Dann, Merenciana Paulus, Ila Plasencia, Clemen Wilcox and this year’s honree’s wife, Hilda Prieto, the event was once again a huge success.
Imagine walking into kaleidoscopic, vibrant room full of happy faces with the dance-ready “La Cucaracha” being played by the Mariachi Band, Calle Sur. There was art, dancing, drinks (no tequila) and food (“bread of the dead” of course). The Altar of Remembrance for honoree Antonio Prieto took center stage. It was incredibly and elaborately detailed with so many things he loved in life. (If my children read this, for my altar of remembrance, don’t forget the Veuve Clicquot and chocolate chip cookies.)
There were many other great interesting pieces in the exhibition. Artist Dario Robeleto’s piece was fascinating. I just loved it for its title: “The Common Denominator of Existence Is Loss.” Now isn’t that just so weighty and wise? The unusual piece is made of 50,000-year old extinct cave bear paws, human hand bones, and stretched and pulled audio tape of the earliest audio recording of time—all under glass. I would never have thought of that! You should go to the Art Center to just see this piece. I also loved all the creative and charismatic skeleton artwork from the children’s classes. A common symbol of the holiday is the skull and skeleton.
Despite the subject matter, this holiday is celebrated joyfully, and the mood of The Day of the Dead is light, with the emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, rather than fearing evil or malevolent spirits. Skeletons can have such charming personalities too!
After having unfortunately lost three family members in the last three weeks, the Day of the Dead Celebration at the Art Center seemed a poignant and touching way for me to think about their lives and celebrate them. The essence of this beautiful ritual is to lovingly and happily remember the dead, their lives, and in this way, give meaning and continuity to human existence.
The Day of the Dead is a grand celebration of life itself!