A Dia de los Muertos Celebration in Tucson

A Bigger than Expected Event

Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is an autumn religious holiday whose origins pre-date both the European arrival in the New World and Christianity.

Like other pre-Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Halloween to name a few, the holiday has been absorbed and recast with a Christian focus.

Like Halloween, Día de los Muertos is closely associated with All Saints and All Souls days which are major holy days in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches (All Saints Day is also a secular holiday in parts of Catholic Europe in the sense that businesses and government offices close in honor of the day). However, it should be noted that Día de los Muertos is NOT the Mexican version of Halloween. Instead it is a separate holiday with its own traditions and customs.

Dia de los Muertos altar constructed by the students of St. Ambrose School
Dia de los Muertos altar constructed by the students of St. Ambrose School | Source

Until recently Día de los Muertos has been celebrated mainly in Mexico and, to some extent, parts of Latin America with its greatest popularity being in rural areas. But, in recent years Día de los Muertos has been becoming a more common celebration in Tucson and other parts of the American southwest.

Hispanic groups, schools, some churches, art galleries, etc. have all been hosting public celebrations which, in recent years, seem to have been increasing in both size and in the turnout that attends.

Wall decorations behind the Dia de los Muertos altar.
Wall decorations behind the Dia de los Muertos altar. | Source

This year I checked the newspaper and noticed that the Tucson Museum of Art was hosting a small celebration in the evening of November 2nd.

The Main Library was also hosting an exhibit of art work related to the holiday and created by children from St. Ambrose School (the K-8 school where I sent my two sons for school) and the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum employees had created a large Día de los Muertos altar exhibit in the plaza in front of their entrance.

Close up of some of the items included in an altar created by students memorializing deceased ancestors.
Close up of some of the items included in an altar created by students memorializing deceased ancestors. | Source

Since November 2nd was a Friday night my wife and I decided to attend the event at the Tucson Museum of Art and then go out to dinner.

Well, that event turned out to be a much bigger event than we, or the Art Museum, expected. For some reason, the Main Library was unable to host the St. Ambrose School exhibit so it was moved to the Art Museum and the children and their families invited to participate in the Art Museum event.

Altar created by Tucson Museum of Art
Altar created by Tucson Museum of Art | Source

The children in grades K-8 had all contributed to the building of a large altar that took up an entire corner of the room used for the exhibit. As you can see from the photos, it was very colorful with a large variety of various types of decorations.

The Art Museum had an altar of their own that focused on one family and was more formal and traditional.

After viewing the displays inside, visitors strolled out to the patio area where there the Museum had created a more artistic altar exhibit. The lighting on the patio was kept low allowing the visitors to enjoy the star filled Arizona sky above while their focus was drawn to the candle lit altar.

Adding to the effect were the Luminaria, paper bags with sand and a lighted candle inside added to the soft lighting effect as did the use of small Christmas tree lights outlining the entrance to the patio. Light refreshments, courtesy of local Mexican restaurants added to the festive and relaxed atmosphere.

Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead)
Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) | Source

Holiday in the U.S. is Evolving and Changing

The final touch was the piñata for the children. Again, the piñata is generally not a part of traditional Día de los Muertos celebrations but is frequently included in birthday, Christmas, Easter and other festive celebrations that focus on children.

Holidays are for people which is why they evolve and change to meet changing needs of people.

This holiday is not about mourning and death rather, it is about celebrating and remembering the dead and including them in the celebration.

For the school children, the focus was on introducing them to their cultural heritage either as Hispanics or as Arizonians growing up in an Anglo-Hispanic culture as well as encouraging them to remember those in their families who had passed on from this life.

Being a Catholic school, I am sure that the studying and preparing for the Día de los Muertos celebration also made the obligatory All Saints and All Souls Day Masses at school more relevant and meaningful.

Altar on the patio of the Art Museum
Altar on the patio of the Art Museum | Source
Ghostly Piñata on patio as a treat for the children.
Ghostly Piñata on patio as a treat for the children. | Source
Skeleton  wearing a sombrero a common Día de los Muertos decoration
Skeleton wearing a sombrero a common Día de los Muertos decoration | Source

© 2007 Chuck Nugent

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RFox profile image

RFox 8 years ago

Great article! I have always been a fan of the 'Day of the Dead' celebrations. It's a wonderful cultural tradition. Great pics too!

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