Maybe you’ve heard Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, described as Mexican Halloween. But according to YWCA Advocate Lorena Ault, it’s much more than that.
“In our culture,” Lorena said, “Dia de los Muertos is a way to celebrate and honor our departed loved ones. Because so many come together for this event, it is also a way for Walla Walla to build community.”
This year’s celebration took place the Wednesday before the two-day holiday that falls on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, which honors the saints and innocent children and Nov. 2, when all others are remembered. The festival is known for spectacular displays of bright flowers and beautifully decorated skulls.
Lorena, along with YWCA Community Relationships and Outreach Coordinator Celia Guardado (pictured), led out in the festival planning, assisted by Whitman College Community Fellow Daphne Gallegos. All three are bilingual and bicultural.
The event incorporated art, music (notably the Villalobos Brothers, pictured, who also performed with the Walla Walla Symphony), food, and dance.
Central to the Day of the Dead is El Altar, a display created to celebrate, remember, honor, and keep a connection with lost loved ones.
Lorena noted that memorial displays may not always be called “altars,” but every culture creates displays of love and remembrance in response to death or tragedy. After the death of a celebrity, a mass shooting, a fire, a natural disaster — whenever humans face grief or loss, especially a large, shared loss — displays of flowers, notes, toys, and more appear to comfort the grieving and honor the dead.
Spanish-speaking cultures have learned that Art Heals (Cultura Cura). This belief makes the Dia de los Muertos celebration perfect for working with a population that has faced domestic violence and sexual assault. “When trauma and abuse happen to you, even if you survive, something inside you dies,” said Lorena. “Building an altar is a way to cope with that loss. In our support groups, I’ve had clients build altars as a healing ritual. Original pre-Columbian altars had levels to represent the different gods and the steps to the afterlife. Our healing altars can have levels too, to show the progress toward recovering from assault or from a dangerous relationship.”
The planning committee included representatives from many local organizations, including YWCA Walla Walla. In future years, the committee hopes to extend the building of healing altars to more groups who experience trauma, including perhaps veterans or first responders.
“The YWCA mission begins with eliminating racism and empowering women,” said Executive Director Anne-Marie Zell Schwerin. “When we gather to share and celebrate the power of Latin culture, racism falls away. And when ancient rituals are repurposed to heal the wounds of trauma, it has the potential to empower anyone in our community.”