Wednesday through Saturday saw Casa Azul hold its annual Día de los Muertos celebration in downtown Greensboro. A non-profit organization that was established in 2010, Casa Azul of Greensboro, began, according to their webpage, “with a gathering of local Latino artists, professionals and enthusiasts working to promote Latin-American arts and culture to increase understanding of Latinos in the area and encourage community involvement.”
Casa Azul members, Jodi Johnson and Maria Harkis, who were attending and facilitating the event, said that Casa Azul, “worked under the umbrella of Arts Greensboro for several years and this past July, 2016, they received their independent 501-C3 as their own organization.” It took “a couple months” to organize the event, with “a lot of volunteers” to help organize, said Johnson and Harkis. The long list of sponsors and volunteers includes community groups and businesses such as Greensboro Public Library, Weaver Foundation, Pedro’s taco shop and UNCG Corazón Folklóroco, among others.
The Día de los Muertos celebration initially consisted of colorfully intricate and delicate “Ofrenda” exhibits within the Greensboro Central Library. These exhibits consisted of altars dedicated to the deceased friends and family of those who hosted them. To honor the deceased, items which were meaningful or of significant importance were placed on the altars. These items included things such as: food, photos, drinks, figurines and other symbolic objects.
This celebration is Aztec origins in origin. In early Aztec traditions, the indigenous rituals had to be performed in secret, hidden in caves and forests to avoid persecution by the Spanish conquistadors. As the conquest of the new world progressed, the indigenous ritual was incorporated in the Catholic holiday, All Saints Day, in order to encourage conversion while still upholding cultural traditions. Día de los Muertos (or variations of such holiday), is celebrated primarily in Mexico, and recently in the United States, along with other Latin American countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela.
Upon entrance to the exhibitions in the Greensboro Central Library, staff and volunteers handed out free “pan de muerto,” also known as “Mexican day of the dead bread,” which is a sweet bread roll baked specifically for this celebration. While the sweet had the texture of bread, it also had the sweetness of cake. Another sweet treat associated with the holiday, was “calaveras de azucar” or “sugar skulls,” that are sugar blocks in the shape of skulls.The bread and the sugar skulls are both eaten, and used for decoration on the altars as symbolic and specific to this celebration. This was seen throughout various altars in the displays of the Greensboro Central Library.
Some other foods include mole, a spicy chocolate sauce used on a variety of dishes, marzipan, confection made of almonds, sugar, egg whites and/or honey and tamales, which are made of masa corn-based and can be stuffed with cheese, meat, vegetables. These are eaten at celebrations in homes, churches and graveyards among other places.
Another component specific to this tradition, and seen throughout the event, was the décor of marigolds, a wildflower native to the region of Mexico that is said to be placed on the altar for the scent to lead the spirits of loved ones back to their home. Other decorations included skull shaped figures, colorful paper cutouts and candles, the light of which is used to light the path for the souls of loved ones to return to the altars. And as such, one candle is lit for each deceased loved one.
Calaveras, the skeletal figures and “calacas,” skeletons, are painted on people’s’ faces as a figure representation of the active afterlife of those passed. One of the rooms prior to the main expedition with the various altars, hosted face painting and drawing for children, where high school students engaged as volunteers in this cultural community celebration.
The main room of altars on display hosted exhibits from individuals, groups and volunteers targeting various themes of loss; including one specifically for the losses of the recent hurricane in Puerto Rico. The exhibits carried on to Saturday, open to the public between the hours of 12 to 3 p.m, and at LeBauer Park, a parade of spooky seven foot-plus puppets filled the area for performances at 7 p.m. This was promptly followed by a bilingual welcome and introduction by the Consul General of Mexico, Remedios Gomez Arnau. From 7:30 to 9 p.m., the event held mesmerizing performances of traditional Mexican dances, including: “Guerrero Costa Chica” (a dance from a region with a large Afro-Mexican population), “Xantolo Danza para el Día de Muertos” (Day of the Dead Dance), Danza Azteca (Aztec dance) and “La Danza de los Viejitos” (Dance of the Old Men).
Between the food, visually striking spiritual displays, dance performances and friendly atmosphere, Casa Azul’s Día de los Muertos celebration was an enjoyable evening that was displayed a slice of Greensboro’s growing hub of cultural diversity.