The Day of the Dead

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El Dia de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead – is a colorful Mexican and Native tradition that honors and celebrates the dead. Carmen Guerrero, Executive Director for the Cultural Coalition, talks about the history behind the custom. Zarco Guerrero, well-known mask artist, joins the discussion.

José Cárdenas: El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a colorful Mexican and Native tradition that honors and celebrates the dead. Joining me to talk about the history behind this custom is Carmen Guerrero, executive director for the Cultural Coalition. Also here is artist Zarco Guerrero, one of the things he is known for is his creativity in making masks. Thank you both for joining us on "Horizonte." Carmen let's start with you and just a quick recap of the various festivals that have already begun and that are coming around the valley beginning with CALA. We've got an image that relates to the CALA organization. This is an image that I understand was created a year ago.

Carmen Guerrero Yes, it was last year's CALA Festival. We were granted to create a new dance so the dance is called the flight of Quetzalcoatl. So, Zarco created the-- dragon, big snake, there was also used on the sun serpent. And was danced by - last year. We brought it back yesterday when we produced and had the CALA festival in downtown Phoenix.

José Cárdenas: One of the Aztec gods.

Carmen Guerrero: Yes.

José Cárdenas: Let's talk about the festival. I should mention, I'm on the board of directors. Say a little bit about CALA and let's talk about what's proved to be the first Phoenix day of the dead festival.

Carmen Guerrero: CALA is the celebracion artistica de las Americas. It's a group of very dedicated leaders in our community like yourself who is the big picture in terms of highlighting the best that Latino culture has to offer. Last year was the first of their biannual festivals. They were able to involve 10 different organizations in creating exceptional works of art and performances that highlight the contribution of Latinos to the arts in our community and this year, we did the encore, and which next year is going to be the big biannual again but this year, we did the first inaugural Día de los Muertos at Hance park in downtown Phoenix.

José Cárdenas: How did it go?

Carmen Guerrero: It was wonderful. We had over 3,000 people, everybody enjoyed it. And it was a great feeling to be there with artists and the student activities and the entertainment. It was absolutely awesome with dances like -- flight of Quetzalcoatl, primavera, open dance, and performances by the Aztec dancers.

José Cárdenas: We've got several other organizations that will be doing their events this coming weekend. I want to come back and talk about that. Let me get a little bit of information from you about this tradition. First of all, its origins?

Zarco Guerrero: The origin goes way back in ancient Mexico, some say as far as 3,000 years before the Aztecs, before the Mayans, all the way back to the Olmec's. So, the is an ancient indigenous tradition. We like to emphasize that it's in honor of our indigenous past and it is not a Hispanic celebration as we so often hear.

José Cárdenas: If it's 3,000 years old, what relevance does it have today?

Zarco Guerrero: It has so much relevance today because it's an expression of our past and honoring of our indigenous heritage, which is under attack today in much of the legislation being passed. For example, the banning of books, the banning of Chicano studies in and light of that, we have to take the initiative, the responsibility to educate our community on who we are because our past is being denied us, and it's being played down. And especially our connection to the indigenous people of the Americas who are continuing this ancient migration north and south about these imaginary borders that are being forced upon us.

José Cárdenas: Let's talk a little bit about the traditional elements of this celebration.

Zarco Guerrero: There's so many different things, it's celebrated in different ways in many different regions throughout Mexico. The last three years, it's been principally a festival, beginning in Mesa 30 years ago through Xicanindio.

José Cárdenas: An organization that you helped found.

Zarco Guerrero: Yes and the celebration has been, you know -- has expressed a continuity of tradition in our community. And we've shared in developing it with a lot of different organizations, artists, performance artists, musicians, dancers, theater groups. It really is a community effort to honor our traditions, to redefine our identity as Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, Latinos, here in the southwest today.

José Cárdenas: Now, we've got some images that we want to put up on the screen that are associated particularly with the celebration in Arizona. These are in large part due to your creativity. The first picture is a giant puppet, a new dress this year?

Zarco Guerrero: Yes, as a matter of fact -- well, it's one of the many forms of expression throughout Mexico, one of course is the painted decorated smiling skull, the other is the use of big puppets in parades, the Aztec dance, the burning of incense. At this year's festival, we heard a lot of the Aztec language spoken through many of the ceremonies. These are all of the things that put us in contact with our ancestors because for Day of the Dead, that's when we believe they come back and we commune with them through prayers, through song, through music and through food, as well.

José Cárdenas: And we've got another couple of pictures, one of them is a group--, who is part of the celebration. We'll put that up on the screen right now. Tell us about that one.

Zarco Guerrero: We call them the enchanted skulls.

José Cárdenas: The two right there.

Zarco Guerrero: And they're like the clowns, the jesters, you could liken that to the clowns for their ceremonies. They're there to let people dance with death, to laugh in the face of death, and they express the exuberant passion for life.

José Cárdenas: And your beautiful daughter's in the middle. She's been around there for a long time. When she was much younger, was she afraid of them?

Zarco Guerrero: No.

José Cárdenas: Because a lot of people look at this as tradition, they see the skulls, and think it's a little morbid and why are we celebrating in this way?

Zarco Guerrero: They think a lot of things about our culture and our origins are morbid and why should day of the dead be anything different? We started the day of the dead like many Chicanos as a form of resistance and affirmation. It was a holiday that came from the community, came from the artist. It wasn't a corporate thing like Cinco de Mayo or the 16th of September, it was a way to sell alcohol to our community, our own form of expression.

José Cárdenas: One more image I want to show. This is also representative of a traditional element of the Arizona celebrations, at least and tell us about this one, it involves a group of people with masks.

Zarco Guerrero: We've tried to re-create, reinvent the use of masks. Masks were essential throughout the Mexico and throughout Latin America, and really throughout the world. All cultures of the world have used masks at one time or another. We make a great effort to utilize the mask and incorporate it in our celebrations because when we put on the mask, we become someone or something else. And in this case, we're putting on the face of our ancestors and adopting their philosophy of life.

José Cárdenas: And -- this is called la mascarada. [ Indiscernible ] Carmen made a reference to other things going on. Zarco made a reference to Xicanindio a group that the two of you helped found in 1975. They've got an event coming up this weekend. Let's talk about that a little bit. I should mention that I'm on that board, too.

Carmen Guerrero: On Saturday the 3rd of November, Xico is having, Xico is now in downtown Chandler is having the 32nd annual Día de los Muertos festival. So that's what's happening on Saturday. On Thursday and Friday, Desert Botanical Garden has different types of events. On Thursday, one called cuisine and culture, where they serve the food and Zarco does a lecture on what is Dia de los Muertos and there's a Mexican artist at the Mexican consulate brought in, that's going to explain an altar that he created for the Desert Botanical Gardens. And Desert Botanical Garden continues on Saturday and Sunday, as well. And please, I didn't want to forget, ALAC is having something on Friday, that is the Arizona Latino Artisan Cultural Center downtown Phoenix that I have to say that I'm on the board of that organization and they are going to have their celebration on Friday from 3:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 at night.

José Cárdenas: We've got some information about the Desert Botanical Gardens event there. Zarco, that includes a -- exhibition of altars. Talk about the altars and the role they play in this celebration.

Zarco Guerrero: Botanical Gardens have been wonderful in their support of the arts and every year, we invite 10 different artists to create their interpretation of a Día de los Muertos altar and it takes many forms. Each artist is completely unique. Sometimes, it deals with things that are extremely personal, other artists make statements about the environment, about politics. But it always has to do with the theme of death and honoring people who have passed away.

José Cárdenas: Carmen, the traditional altar that people would make in their homes, basic elements there, the marigold, the incense and so forth, give us kind of picture.

Carmen Guerrero: First of all, a picture of the lost one and then food, their traditional food, their favorite food, flowers of course, and incense and all the objects that they liked. So that's the traditional altar. The exhibition at the Desert Botanical Gardens is not traditional. This year, the team is -- [ Speaking Spanish ]

José Cárdenas: Eternal love.

Carmen Guerrero: We asked 10 of them to interpret eternal love through their art. There's a song, it's a beautiful Mexican song so we created that as the theme for this year's altar at Desert Botanical Garden. It's going to be viewed until next week.

José Cárdenas: This year with the inclusion of Phoenix, which was a huge omission in the past, everyone was scratching their head how you couldn't have such a celebration in the biggest city in the valley but it's not just Phoenix. We've been involved in celebrations in Glendale, and really across the valley. How have you seen it grow over the years?

Carmen Guerrrero: It's grown all over the state. On Saturday, we were at the museum of northern Arizona, this was their 10th annual celebration of the people, which is Dia de los Muertos. It goes down to Flagstaff, it goes down to Tucson, Glendale, Avondale had something at the cementary last Saturday. So it's really growing, it's an expression -- it's a holiday or a tradition that's been embraced by many cultures, not just people of Latino heritage. It's so beautiful, it's our gift to the larger community, to be able to celebrate and remember the loved ones with so much flowers and flowers of colors and music and songs and poetry and beauty and zest.

José Cárdenas: We're almost out of time but I do want to return to one question I asked you before, about why is it relevant today, but more in the context of why it should appeal to people of other traditions, other cultures, as well as to Latinos?

Zarco Guerrero: In researching our past and our culture, we find gifts there, we find things of beauty, of interest. We find poetry, we find philosophy of life. And these we feel as artists, these are our gifts from our past, from our ancestors and as artists, we want to translate these gifts in such a way that we give them not only to our family, not only to our community, our cultural community, but to the community as a whole. You know, when we have these festivals, everybody is invited and there's people who are not of Mexican descent.

José Cárdenas: It truly is for everyone.

Zarco Guerrero: For everyone.

José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us on Horizonte to talk about it. Zarco, Carmen Guerrero thank you very much. That's our show for this Thursday Evening. From all of us here at "Horizonte," I'm José Cárdenas, Have a good night.

Carmen Guerrero:Executive Director, Cultural Coalition; Zarco Guerrero:Artist;

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