ST. GEORGE — Gloria Bertram’s first memory of Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, occurred when she was a teenager in Mexicali, Mexico.
“Some friends and I decided to go to the cemetery,” Bertram told St. George News. “After passing by about 10 tombstones, I got scared and went back to the car to wait.”
When her friends returned, they carried candy and other trinkets. Later, she asked her dad about the holiday, and he told her of its rich, varied history. She was intrigued by the tradition, but she didn’t fully embrace it until she and her husband had children of their own.
“I wanted to them to know their history, heritage and traditions,” she said. “I’ve celebrated it ever since.”
But since moving to St. George, she didn’t feel comfortable celebrating the holiday publicly.
“I was afraid that my neighbors would think it was witchcraft,” Bertram told St. George News. “Then, after Disney released ‘Coco,’ I felt comfortable enough to share the tradition with our neighbors.”
Dia de los Muertos is not “Mexican Halloween,” as is sometimes mistakenly thought. Rather, it’s a two-day celebration of life, death and loved ones.
The tradition was born of pre-Hispanic Aztec, Toltec and Nahua peoples, who saw death as a natural phase of life. To them, the dead were still alive in spirit, and they walked the Earth on the first two days of November. In some Mexican cities and towns, marigold petals are sprinkled on the ground, so that the dead may find their way home.
Death is the primary theme of Dia de los Muertos, as shown in the use of calaveras, or sugar skulls, and masks that are worn, or painted, on the faces of revelers. People all over Mexico strive to show love for the dead and appreciation for life. They dress up in costumes, hence the confusion with Halloween. They party. They parade in the streets and town squares. In some areas, they make colorful sawdust rugs that sometimes stretch along the town’s roads.
Another way they do this is through building ofrendas, or altars. The altars display pictures of dead family members and friends, as well as their favorite foods (like the subtly sweet pan de muerto, or bread of the dead), drinks (bottles of Coca Cola as well as the sweet, fermented agave drink, pulque), and other items like rosary beads, cigarettes and other trinkets.
“I add salt and silver,” Bertram said. “I add candles and images of the Lady of Guadalupe.”
This year, Bertram said that she’s including members from both sides of her family, as well as her husband’s.
“It has given me the chance to reconnect with family members, as well as make new connections,” she said. Bertram will make tamales and pozole for her celebration. And, in keeping with tradition, she shares memories of her dead loved ones with younger members of her family.
“It keeps their spirits alive,” she said. “It keeps them alive. Nobody really dies until they are forgotten. As long as we remember them, they’re with us.”
Those interested in celebrating this annual tradition may visit Southern Utah Museum of Art. The Day of the Dead: Festival of Altars, runs from Monday through Saturday. They’re taking a multi-faceted approach of at-home activities, in-person events and immersive decorations this year. Visit them here for more information.
Dixie State University’s Spanish Program is hosting its seventh annual Dia de los Muertos showcase, featuring funerary alters made by students and readings of elegiac poetry in the Gardner Lobby on Wednesday at noon. They will also have a dance at 7:30 p.m.
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