Bone Deep

Day of the Dead festivities have a spiritual and decorative component — and are also, increasingly, a way to build community.
Photo used courtesy of El Centro

El Día de los Muertos is a traditional celebration from Central America with roots in northern Mexico — but “Day of the Dead” is gaining more popularity every year in general populations of the United States, at least for its festive and decorative elements, if not for its spiritual customs. In Henderson County, though, El Centro, the Latino community center that focuses on inclusion programs, celebrates the tradition with a family event creating community.

The holiday’s origins can be traced to Aztec mythology as a ritual for Mictēcacihuātl, the lady of the dead, a spirit believed to protect the bones of the departed. After European colonization, the Aztec rituals merged with the Catholic traditions, creating the Day of the Dead and All Saints Day on November 1.

Traditionally, families visit cemeteries or build altars at home decorated with family photos, marigolds, and deceased relatives’ favorite food or drink. “The festival reminds me of my childhood — we made altars with food, candles, and flowers,” says El Centro Co-Director Evelyn Alarcon, who’s originally from Mexico. “For me it is a beautiful celebration, and an opportunity to come together as a family and tell anecdotes of our ancestors.”

This year, for the first time, the event is a partnership with the Henderson County Public Schools. “We are excited to work with the school systems,” says Carolina McCready, El Centro’s other co-director. The idea developed from survey results seeking their constituency’s major concerns after last year’s presidential election, when El Centro discovered parents were worried about how their children would be treated in school. “The Migrant Education Program suggested doing the event at Sugarloaf [Elementary School] as a way to build bridges and create more understanding of different cultures,” McCready says.

Those attending can also learn from service agencies, participate in a costume contest for children ages 5-12, and see dance exhibitions by Aztec dancers and Soles de Mexico, a folkloric dance group of children who attend the local public schools. “I love to see families together, having fun,” notes Alarcon.

While home altars and cemetery visits are more personal, the public event is oriented to everyone. Since its debut three years ago, “we have received great community support,” says Alarcon. Also expect games, raffles, stations for decorating sugar skulls and making paper masks — and a more serious motive. “At these events, we understand we can create tolerance and respect — it builds solidarity,” Alarcon adds.

Día de los Muertos Festival, a free public event, happens Sunday, October 29, 3-6 pm, at Sugarloaf Elementary (2270 Sugarloaf Road in Hendersonville). For more information, contact El Centro Hendersonville (508 N Grove St.) at 828-693-1981.

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