Lucy Andrus, art education professor and art therapy minor program coordinator at SUNY Buffalo, could be spending her sabbatical doing her own research or putting her feet up for some much-deserved R&R. Instead, she teamed up with Brocton's Ahira Hall Memorial Library to bring an awareness of cultural diversity to area residents with the celebration of El Dia de los Muertos on Nov. 3 at 6:30 p.m., and a series of workshops leading up to the event.
"This kind of event doesn't happen very often, but it is one of my goals that the library shares, to reach out and teach and make others aware of different cultural traditions as we increase our awareness of each other and build appreciation for diversity," Andrus said.
El Dia de los Muertos, which translates to "The Day of the Dead," is a Mexican and Mexican-American holiday that takes place on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. Blending Indo-Hispanic traditions, Day of the Dead is a time when families gather together to honor relatives and friends who have died during the past year, and to celebrate the memory of ancestors and departed loved ones from years gone by.
Common items of ofrenda, part of the Dia de los Muertos tradition.
This holiday is becoming more and more popular in the USA, and many people and communities in the west and southwest, and even as far east as New York City, are celebrating Dia de los Muertos. For this holiday, parties are thrown, and special foods and decorations are made. Gravesites and homemade altars are decorated with brightly-colored mementos, statues, and candles. Processions to cemeteries accompany the celebration, with much fanfare and merriment. It is believed that the souls of the departed visit their living families during these festivities, and the gravesite vigils help guide the spirits back to them. Dia de los Muertos is based on ancient cultural traditions, including Aztec beliefs, that life and death are intertwined, and that death is a continuation of life. El Dia de los Muertos is not a time for sadness, but for joy.
Andrus chose this particular holiday to celebrate because of the local area's diverse population.
"There is a significant Latino presence in Chautauqua County and I'm hoping to reach out and bring folks together," Andrus explained. "And, I have found El Dia de los Muertos to be such a meaningful and positive way to deal with loss and the death and remembrance of loved ones that I wanted others to know about it. Every time I have presented this tradition to children and adults alike, I always see how therapeutic it is for people, and how much they appreciate the chance to remember, talk about, and make artwork about a loved one who has died in a positive, uplifting way, very unlike the more somber traditions surrounding death that many of us are used to."
Some of the traditional decorations and handmade items that can be seen on altars and tombstones are "Calacas," small skeletons made out of wood, clay, or even candy. They are often brightly painted, wear festive clothing, and are adorned with accessories and yellow marigolds, considered the flowers of the dead. These calacas are posed to indicate revelry: They dance together, sing, and play musical instruments. The mirth of the calacas indicates a happy afterlife, drawing on the belief that the souls of the departed like to be remembered with joy.
Participants of Andrus's workshop got a chance to make their own calacas, and their efforts brought smiles from the participants and event organizers alike:
"Some of the calacas representing departed loved ones that were made by the workshop participants this fall are at once poignant and humorous, and just very human in their communication; and we can all relate to such expressions," Andrus said.
"Calaveras" are also made to celebrate El Dia de los Muertos, decorative skulls and skull masks used to adorn graves and worn in the festive spirit of the holiday. Like the calacas, calaveras can be made of different materials and are brightly painted, often with the names of the deceased family members they are meant to honor inscribed in them. They may be edged with flowers and ribbons. Andrus's workshop participants were able to make their own calaveras, and there was even a special teen workshop on Oct. 20 for teens to make masks out of plaster.
Calacas and calaveras are part of the "Ofrenda," offerings for the dead. In addition to these, family members decorate their loved ones' graves with incense, flowers, special foods like pan de muertos (skull-shaped baked goods) and most importantly, a photo of the deceased.
Julie Putcher, the director of the Ahira Hall Memorial Library, said that this event is the first installment of a longer program that will celebrate cultural diversity.
"We're definitely going to continue in this spirit," Putcher said. "(Andrus) and I have already talked about the possibility of a Native American cultural celebration. And we want to do something for African American History Month in February."
The community's response to the event has been heartening.
"We've had an average of 18 participants per workshop," Putcher said. "Patrons seem to really enjoy being introduced to a celebration that some of them were not even aware of."
Andrus explained that this lack of awareness is often the result of geographical limitations, and not a conscious choice or prejudice.
"Many of us are often unaware of the different traditions of our diverse peoples, particularly in rural communities where resources may not be the same as those found in larger urban areas," Andrus said.
Also, she has found that these events and this type of education strengthen a community, and lead to a far-reaching social awareness and beneficial curiosity about other cultures.
"In my experience as an art and culture educator, I have always found that once people take the time to learn more about each other's traditions, walls come down, appreciation for difference grows, and we find greater common ground to stand upon. Most of all, people discover that all the different cultural traditions in our society make life more interesting and exciting, and what could be better than bringing people together to experience this unique aspect of our population?" Andrus said.
Andrus expressed her appreciation for the sponsorship of the Ahira Hall Memorial Library and the hard work of Putcher and the other community members and volunteers who made this workshop series and celebration possible. With the success of this first endeavor, she hopes that participation in this multicultural program of events will continue.
"We (worked) collaboratively to make this happen and hope to continue this November by offering a presentation on traditions of the Haudenosaunee (Native American 'People of the Longhouse') at the library as we work toward integrating cultural literacy with reading and visual literacy for the community at large," Andrus said.
Andrus, Putcher, and the community members who have worked so enthusiastically on this event are hoping for a good turnout for the actual celebration of Dia de los Muertos on Saturday, Nov. 3. Visitors will get to see all of the participants' efforts at making the artifacts and decorations for this event, and they will see the ofrenda display to be installed this coming week. Anyone who comes to this event and to the library at any time while the ofrenda is up will have an opportunity to make a simple memento of a loved one to add to the ofrenda.
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