Brightly colored “papel picado,” a Spanish phrase meaning cut paper, and papier-mache skulls – are two art forms essential to the traditional ancestral celebration of Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead. These art forms are used as decorations in altars, which will be displayed Nov. 1-2 to honor and remember the dead.
In preparation for the display, the Aztec Dance Club offered a Dia de los Muertos workshop to the public, where participants had the opportunity to get hands-on experience creating colorful cut tissue paper and papier-mache skulls. This event gave them the chance to participate and learn about a tradition that dates back thousands of years to the Aztec culture.
Pedro Garcia, a graduate student working toward his master’s in biology and a drummer for the Aztec Dance Club, led the skull-making portion of the workshop.
“We like to collaborate with Fresno State and bring our dance group here to Fresno to bring some culture,” Garcia said.
The club is a community dance group in Fresno and Clovis. Garcia had the idea to form a dance club and combine it with an existing community dance group four years ago.
“There was a lack of outreach to people my age, to students,” Garcia said. Many people have been in the group since its founding. He said he wanted to reach out to university students in particular.
“Starting this club was a way to first get college students initiated in all this kind of stuff, to relearn their culture, their past history through dance and through activities like this,” Garcia said.
People began to trickle into the Industrial Technology building classroom around 10 a.m. Sunday and by noon, the room was busy with guests creating unique pieces.
Those who participated were students, faculty and members of the community. Samuel Martinez, a senior majoring in public health administration, brought friends with him to the workshop. He recalled the time he lived in Mexico and how the Day of the Dead was not a time to be afraid; rather it was a time to commemorate the dead and pay respect to them.
Elvis Nunez, 19, social work student, joined Martinez and said the group of friends was trying to find a time to hang out since their busy school schedules would not allow much free time.
“It’s a Sunday. We woke up early, but we’re all together and going to have fun,” Nunez said.
Nunez knows some of the tradition’s meanings, but doesn’t celebrate it.
“I had heard of the traditions. They make food and paint faces,” Nunez said. “And when they make the food, it’s like a way they’re offering to the ‘muertos.’ It’s like a one whole day or two-day event, where we feel like they are still with us, honoring them and their memory.”
He would like to continue the tradition. Nunez added that while growing up, kids are usually afraid of death, but if they are taught at a young age not to be afraid they will learn to celebrate and continue the tradition.
The workshop was a warm up for the main event that the Aztec Dance club will hold Nov. 1-2 at 6 p.m. On these dates the altars will be assembled in the Free Speech Area where ceremonial dances, speeches and musicians will celebrate. This will be free and open to the public. Ceremonial dances will also take place. These days commemorate the old and the young who have passed away, Garcia said.
Sylvia Sanchez, a senior at Fresno State majoring in child development, attended the workshop with her 10-year-old son. She expressed how she knew little about the traditional celebration of Dia de los Muertos.
Traditions get lost from generation to generation, she said, and she hopes that by bringing her son to this workshop they can both walk away with a better connection to their roots.
Although Sanchez has never created an altar, she wishes to make one in honor of her father who passed away almost a year ago. Perhaps that will help with the healing process, she said.
As altars go up and offerings are presented, the marigold flower has a powerful presence with its fragrance. The flower is a bright orange that helps light the path at night for the dead, according to the tradition. Daniel Mejia, president of the Aztec Dance Club, said marigolds have a strong aroma.
“The belief is that on the day of Dia de los Muertos, the family members come searching for the altars, and so the smell of the marigolds helps them find where the altar is. It’s like a way back to this world to visit us,” Mejia said.
Willie Lopez, a former theatre teacher at Fresno State, was one of the workshop participants. He invited his son and grandchildren to attend as well.
As he worked on his paper mache skull, he reminisced of the times he would celebrate Dia de los Muertos in Guadalajara, Mexico. In describing altars, he mentioned that family members would leave food and would even play the deceased’s favorite song.
Perhaps it was because the loved one had a personal connection to the song, Lopez said.
Altars were not only made in the homes, but were also constructed at cemetery sites. For Lopez, it is a time to celebrate. Families would spend the entire day picnicking. Someone would bring a guitar and sing songs. He recalled spending the day at the cemetery celebrating and sharing memories of the dead.
“You start talking about memories, funny things they used to do. ‘Remember ‘abuelita se hechaba los pedos’ [remember grandma and the farts she would throw],’ and everyone has a memory of that.” He laughed.
“You have the ‘nietos’ [grandchildren], people that didn’t know who she was and you start to get a feeling of how special they were. Because otherwise you forget them.”
The workshop also was a way to get the community involved by creating crafts.
“This is part of our culture. This is something our ancestors did for hundreds of years, thousands of years,” Lopez said. “And even looking into it more you start to see the symbolism in making the skulls, the colors the decorations, the reasons why we cut up the paper – looking behind the stories of those. So hopefully some of the people will walk away with that and start talking about it soon.”
Remembering the dead is the theme that brings the living together, keeping their memory alive and celebrating their lives.
“In our ‘cultura’ we do that all the time,” said Lopez.
“The Mayans used to do it. The Aztecas used to do it. The Incas used to do it. El Dia de los Muertos becomes their day, and you won’t forget them.”