As Halloween hovers on the horizon, and people gear up to put on gruesome, bizarre, or funny costumes and children seek sweets from door to door, a related, but more earnest, tradition flourishes until November 2, given life by the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands (MAHS).
In a large, long hall at Metropolitan Community College, amid a few closed classrooms, people in this community witness Los Dias de los Muertos (“The Days of the Dead”), a Mexican celebration honoring loved ones who have gone on to other places, bodies and bones encased in stone, resting in Mother Earth or dispersed as ashes towards the heavens. In this celebration of the transition, we are reminded that such journeys lie ahead for us all—an awareness stretching North and South, East and West all around the globe, roots going back multiple centuries, including the time before European boots touched this hemisphere.
“Every indigenous culture has something similar, honoring ancestors,” says Linda Garcia, MAHS co-founder and project director of this festival. “There are so many kinds of remembrances. It’s like Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Veterans’ Day all rolled into one.”
She calls this event “Stories By Heart,” defining that as “…the foundation of memories, stories and mythic traditions.” Opening day she mingled among visitors taking in ceramics, collages, sculptures, fabric art, giant cut-out window-sized paper flowers floating towards the heavens, tiny engraved buttons, greeting cards, live flowers, metal wood saws re-worked and re-formed into fascinating patterns, pictures depicting skeletons playing sports, cooking, performing. And the face of Mexico’s Frida Kahlo, a sort of patron saint of women painters, awaited gazes in multiple places. Meanwhile, Juan Carlos Veloso played “Besame Mucho” at double keyboards, a further expression of love.
Garcia says the styles and subjects in the exhibition range from the very traditional to the very contemporary. She and gallery designer/director, Cuban-American Mike Girón decided what to display, contacting artists whose work they already knew and admired. Some of the contributors were new to themes of Los Dias de los Muertos.
After it’s all over and honor’s been done to the mortals who’ve become immortal, you could take home remembrances; the twenty or so participating artists offer you their work at prices from $4 to $2,000.
Visual art may look like the main focus, but there also are varied, cross-cultural live events. You can hear tales and ballads in “Vaquero to Buckeroo-Cowboy Culture,” presented by New Mexico’s Ricardo Garcia; “The Wordsmiths,” a group of “Edutainers” use storytelling, poetry, and songs to encapsulate African-American oral traditions; an Omaha and a Choctaw native narrate tales of tribal inheritances with a sign language interpreter by their sides. Plus twelve poets read their own words in “Las Palabras del Corazón.” And, as a finale, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim performs marimba pieces after which Ballet Folklorico Xiotal dances, harpist William Sanchez plucking and stroking the melodies. For some of these events there are modest charges from $2 to $10. In others, the presenters would be delighted with whatever donation you are moved to make. There is no admission charge for the exhibition.
Garcia points out that the celebration is “deeply rooted in America’s Pre-Columbian past. Central to its meaning,” she says, “is a need within families and, increasingly, within general society to ensure that memories of the times and the experiences of departed loved one are not forgotten.”
You may not readily see a parallel to Halloween in this celebration, given that its original meaning has been overshadowed by making ghosts terrifying rather than benign. Actually the currently popular partying began as All Hallows Evening, October 31, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows or All Saints, a time to remember saints, martyrs, and all the faithful departed. The Mexican version traces back, as well, to an Aztec festival.
An essential element of the beliefs that underlie such contemplations of death is that there are other planes of existence, including, but not limited to, Christian Heaven. Long ago, the Buddhists and the Hindus embraced death as a different stage of life. Deb McColley’s offering at the exhibit underscores that, framing the moving words of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch: “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow, and I am in them, and that is eternity.”
Los Dias de los Muertos—Stories by Heart continues through Nov. 2 at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus, Building 21 (“Mule Barn”) at 32nd and Sorensen Parkway. Directions: upon arrival at the entrance, turn to the first building on the left. More info at facebook.com/losdiasdemuertos and losdiasdelosmuertosomaha.org. The Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands: mahsmidlands.org, or 402.93.9130.
Fact-checking: Linda Garcia 402.651.9918