A Lively Celebration of the Dead

Dia de los Muertos, the traditional Mexican holiday, invites people to look at death in a different way – as a celebration of life. And with the many Day of the Dead celebrations taking place in Milwaukee over the next two weeks, there is something for everyone, both Mexican and non-Mexican alike.  Walker’s Point Center for the Arts and Latino Arts, two staples on the Southside, bring the tradition alive through colorful art exhibits, musical performances and a huge parade. “We don’t take death too seriously – that’s how we are,” says local artist Jose Chavez. “Sugar skulls remind us…


Dia de los Muertos, the traditional Mexican holiday, invites people to look at death in a different way – as a celebration of life. And with the many Day of the Dead celebrations taking place in Milwaukee over the next two weeks, there is something for everyone, both Mexican and non-Mexican alike. 

Walker’s Point Center for the Arts and Latino Arts, two staples on the Southside, bring the tradition alive through colorful art exhibits, musical performances and a huge parade.

“We don’t take death too seriously – that’s how we are,” says local artist Jose Chavez. “Sugar skulls remind us that one day we all have to die. You give the candy skull to a friend and it’s a token of friendship. It’s also a bit of a joke.” Walker’s Point Center for the Arts (839 S. Fifth Street) has one of the longest running exhibits –19 years – of showcasing ofrendas or altars that pay homage to a loved one.

This year, the exhibit is curated by Chavez, and will include local artists of various backgrounds. “This is really an exhibit for the people by the people,” says Chavez. Dara Larson, a professor at Alverno, brought her students into the process of creating an altar. Robert Regir collects tiny figures from Mexico that make up his altar. Mary A. Smith has created an altar dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor. People often memorialize famous people, political figures, authors and actors, rather than, or in addition to, family members.

Día de los Muertos
(Nov. 1-2) falls around the American Halloween holiday so people often mistake it for thoughts of zombies and ghosts. In Mexico, people visit gravesites and leave food, drinks, toys and special memories at the tomb of the deceased. People also line the paths of the cemeteries with bright yellow marigold flowers so that spirits can rise from the grave and find their way out of the cemetery and back to the places they want to visit.  Sounds spooky, but in Mexico it’s very public, people open their houses for others to come in and see their altars.

Latino Arts Gallery at the Unied Community Center (1028 S. Ninth St.) has its own Día de los Muertos exhibition on display Oct. 28-Nov. 18 with new local, regional, and international artists each year.

Artistic Director Zulay Oszkay, explains the tradition beautifully: “It’s about reaffirming the value of life by inviting the spirits of our loved ones back into our hearts after they have crossed over in death. Americans, for the most part, have very dark, brooding thoughts about death, so walking into our gallery and seeing it packed with bright colors, images of joy, and even humorous pieces can be a bit of a shock. We can celebrate without sorrow or fear; it’s a commemoration of the joy of life that acknowledges that death is just a part of life, a small piece of a beautiful, natural journey.”

As is the tradition at Latino Arts, they are pairing the gallery opening with a concert. This year, the exhibit kicks off with Mexican indie rock band Pistolera that has a strong social conscience and messages of independence, love, and revolution. Pistolera plays Friday, November 4 at 7:30 p.m. Click here for tickets. 

The 2nd annual Dia de los Muertos Parade is organized the Milwaukee Mijas, and will hit the streets Friday, Oct. 28 at 5 p.m. Last year about 600 people participated. “We were really blown away,” says Celeste Contreras, one of the Milwaukee Mijas. “People got involved in so many different ways – so much more than expended. It creates a really beautiful community.”

The staging for the parade will take place inside the United Community Center. Then, parade participants will take their colorful tributes, including costumes, stilt walkers, puppets, music, and dancers, on a tour of the neighborhood to the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts and back to the United Community Center.

The Milwaukee Mijas is an organization founded in 2009 by Celeste Contreras and Nicole Acosta – two artists on a mission to unite, support and encourage one another through art.They have been hosting workshops since the end of September to allow people to create masks, puppets, floats, signs and decorations for the parade.  For more information about the parade, click here.

The exhibit at Walker’s Point Center for the Art runs though November 19 and is open Tue.-Sat,. 12-5 p.m. Admission is free. The Latino Arts Gallery is open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-8 p.m. for a suggested donation of $1. 

One More Not to Miss
Dracula at the Milwaukee Ballet Oct. 27-30 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Just in time for Halloween, Artistic Driector Michael Pink brings back his most popular and successful work seen by nearly one million people throughout Great Britain, New Zealand and the United States. This monstrous production combines everything that a brooding ballet performance needs: massive and dark scenery, period costumes from Tony Award winner Lez Brotherston, dramatic lighting effects and a chilling score. Dracula is a breathtaking story of passion, seduction, transformation and sacrifice. Click here to purchase tickets.

Follow me on twitter @jkashou for more insider tips, events and happenings around town. Or, tip me off to an event you know of that you’d like me to cover.

Home page photo courtesy of Latino Arts, Inc. Top photo by Mary Overman. Bottom photo by Jose Chavez.

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Jenna Kashou is a writer, storyteller and journalist specializing in lifestyle and culture feature writing for print and web. She is a frequent contributor to Milwaukee Magazine, MKE Lifestyle Magazine, The Business Journal and more. She was chosen as the fifth writer in residence at the historic Pfister Hotel where she wrote about and photographed guests and events. A Milwaukee native, Kashou has lived abroad and visited far-flung locales like Greece, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina. She has always had an enormous sense of pride for her hometown and spreads this Milwaukee love everywhere she goes.