Festive music, sugar skulls and brightly colored decorations drew crowds to Steele Indian School Park on Sunday for the 40th annual Día de los Muertos festival held by the Cultural Coalition Inc.
Art booths lined with Papel Picado (colorful paper banners) guided attendees around the festival as the warm smell of beans and tortillas wafted around the assortment of food trucks. Several guests wore traditional costumes and masks, while others arrived with variations of a skull painted on their face.
This year, the name of the festival was changed to Mikitztli (pronounced meeh-keesh-tleeh), which translates to “transition” in the traditional Nahuatl language. It is symbolized by the “calaca,” or the “smiling skull,” an icon commonly associated with Día de los Muertos.
Carmen Guerrero, 65, is the executive director for the Cultural Coalition, an organization that provides cultural, artistic and educational programs and events throughout the Valley, including Mikitztl.
According to Guerrero, the name of the festival was changed due to “blatant commercialization and cultural appropriation” of Día de los Muertos. Rather than associate their group with that, the Cultural Coalition hopes to focus their attention on “the tradition itself.”
“We are now facing the fact that there’s so much commercialization of the theme of Día de los Muertos,” Guerrero said. “If you go to any dollar store right now, you’re going to find all kinds of things made in China with the smiling calaca.”
Carmen’s husband, Zarco Guerrero, is an artist and president of the Cultural Coalition, and he agrees that many people don’t realize the true intentions behind Día de los Muertos and the non-traditional associations that have resulted from the lack of knowledge.
“People see the commercial value of it,” Zarco said. “Corporations now have adopted it. Disney has used it as a form of reaching the so-called Hispanic audience. We’re not a Hispanic audience — we’re representing the indigenous cultures of the Americas.”
Día de los Muertos means “Day of the Dead” in English, though Carmen and Zarco agree that the tradition has never been about death.
“It wasn’t about dead people, it was about our ancestors who are still very much alive,” Zarco said. “We keep them alive, we keep their memory alive, by the music, the dancing and the songs.”
But the name of the holiday is not the only misleading factor. Skeletons and graveyards have led to a confusion with another holiday around this time of year.
According to Carmen, the biggest misconception about Día de los Muertos is that people think it’s the “Mexican Halloween.”
“It has really nothing to do with Halloween,” Carmen said. “It’s the tradition that we honor our ancestors. It has nothing to do with ghouls or vampires with blood; it’s all about flowers and songs and food.”
Despite the false beliefs regarding the celebration, Carmen believes that Día de los Muertos is viewed and accepted differently here in the Southwest compared to other parts of the country.
The physical proximity of Phoenix to Mexico plays a role in that. According to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau, Phoenix has a Mexican population of nearly 40 percent.
“We have the ability to capture that Mexican flavor through the festival because so much of our population can understand and relate to it,” Carmen said.
Stephanie Canales, 16, attended the festival for her first time this year and plans to return in the future.
“You get to learn more about the Mexican culture and interact with it,” Canales said. “It’s like you’re actually in Mexico.”
Canales said that her favorite part was admiring the works of art displayed around the
festival, most of which was made by Zarco.
Zarco also helped organize the performances for the event. He said that many dancers who started with the Cultural Coalition continue to attend and enjoy with their families to this day.
“The dance companies that started with us 40 years ago, now their grandkids are dancing at our festival,” Zarco said.
As for the misconceptions surrounding the celebration, Zarco said that, “it’s frustrating to think that the meaning is being diluted,” but seeing the performers, artists and families come together at the festival makes it all worth it for him.
“We are open to all cultures,” Carmen said. “And I think the importance of community festivals is to give the family an opportunity to get out of the house and be involved and have this interactive ability with real artists. So I think that is very unique and very different.”
If you missed the festival this year, there will be another Día de los Muertos celebration at the Desert Botanical Garden on Nov. 3 and 4.
For questions, contact the reporter at [email protected]