By Laura Latzko
During El Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, family members have a chance to honor their lost loved ones and invite them to return to Earth.
Originating in Mexico, the holiday incorporates traditions from Hispanic and indigenous cultures.
The Mesa Arts Center will celebrate the holiday on Saturday, October 27, and Sunday, October 28, with two performance stages featuring ballet folklorico dancers, mariachi bands and soloists.
The festival also offers an art car show, information boards on Day of the Dead; street performances from a juggler and stilt walkers and a children’s area with sugar skull-, fan- and necklace-decorating craft activities.
Inside the mercado area, vendors will offer Day of the Dead-themed products and handmade crafts and artwork.
Food vendors will sell cuisine like Mexican food, Sonoran hot dogs and paleta popsicles.
During the event, artists will open their studios and give demos on mediums such as glass blowing and metal work.
The festivities will end on Sunday with a procession through campus, led by dignitaries and a mariachi group. Festival goers are encouraged to join in, carrying candles and flowers to honor their lost friends and family members.
About 13 years ago, a group of Mexican consulate members and arts center staff and volunteers helped to revive the festival in Mesa. Before that, another organization had hosted a long-running Day of the Dead festival in Pioneer Park before disbanding.
Susan Klecka, chairwoman of the planning committee and one of the festival’s originators, said from the start, it was important to observe Day of the Dead traditions in a culturally accurate way while still offering entertainment choices for different patrons.
“The important thing to us was to be culturally correct with different aspects of the event but also to provide entertainment for people who just want to come to that arts center campus and have a party,” Klecka says.
During the Day of the Dead, family members honor their lost loved ones with altars with favorite foods and beverages of the deceased, marigolds, photos and candles.
The Mesa celebration will honor this tradition with a community altar and altar competition. The community altar is the festival’s focal point.
Members of the public can add ofrendas, or offerings, of photos, candles, flowers, personal notes and other personalized items to the community alter.
Local painter and mixed-media artist Kyllan Maney works with a team to develop the community altar, which she tries to keep traditional with elements such as a Virgen de Guadalupe statue, arches and fresh marigolds while adding stylistic touches such as vibrant flowers and birds and a multicolored Catrina painting.
Maney got involved with the festival six years ago, when she and another artist designed a Catrina-themed chalk mural for the Day of the Dead celebration.
To prepare for the festival, hundreds of volunteers help to create paper flowers and decorate and set up the altar.
“It’s really a great process because it gets so many people from the community involved to prepare for the festival. Also, the people who come to the festival are part of it because they bring pictures of their loved ones that have passed on to celebrate their lives,” Maney says.
Prominent in the celebration of the Day of the Dead are calaveras, or skulls, and Catrina figures, skeletal figures dressed in aristocratic clothing.
The Catrina concept developed from a print by Jose Guadalupe Posada, who was commenting on how underneath all the trappings of society, people are similar.
Posada’s work has been especially inspirational for the artist.
Maney says the festival is special because it is a time to remember lost family members and friends in a positive way.
“It’s just a great day to celebrate their lives. They are always with us. They’re always in our hearts,” Maney says.
Prior to the event, up to16 community members and families, schools and companies create altars for the competition.
Participants can put their own creative spin on their altars, but they must have traditional elements such as marigolds, water, salt and pan de muertos sweet bread.
In the past, the altars have honored friends and family members and celebrities.
Families often gather together to create and set up the altars.
“It’s a whole family production, where you have mothers, daughters, fathers and sons. They’ve built aspects to their altars, and they’re all coming in to set it up in the altar space,” Maney says.
The top competitors will be announced prior to opening of the festival on Saturday.
In celebration of the Day of the Dead, many revelers don sugar skull face paint or dress up as Catrinas. Face painter Desiree Salas will return for the fifth year to decorate festivalgoers’ faces with distinctive sugar skull masks. Although she has set designs that she uses, Salas tries to make each a little bit different. She starts with a white skull and adds elements such as flower patterns, swirls and dots.
Salas said what makes her different from other artists is how she creates a 3-D effect with the skulls.
“I would say that’s the biggest thing that sets me apart from everybody else. I do a certain shadowing on my skulls…That’s when everybody feels like it just comes to life right there, when I start to put the shadowing on,” Salas says.
Dia de Los Muertos Festival, Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main Street, Mesa, 480.644.6500, mesaartscenter.com, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, October 27, and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday, October 28, free admission, $4 to $25 for face painting, additional costs for food and mercado items.