Dia de los Muertos
Celebrating with our families
in Tere and Juan's Backyard
by Verenice Velazquez, Los Cenzontles Alumni and Staff
On the drizzly Saturday afternoon of October 30, Los Cenzontles arrived at Tere and Juan Ortega’s ranch-like backyard to set up for our Dia de los Muertos celebration. Tere and Juan, sitting comfortably on their back porch, jumped up to continue our party preparations.
Dia de los Muertos has always been a special community event at Los Cenzontles. Last year, our short film Living Altars created a community connection through our social media platforms, but we were not able to play music or create art together. While usually open to the public, this year’s Dia de Los Muertos was a private event only for our center’s families. We felt that we needed this intimate space to reconnect as we try to exit times of isolation and protect the health of our community. It was the first time getting together with our familias in almost two years.
About three weeks prior to the event, our academy students started creating art pieces that honor their loved ones who have passed away. In between classes or while waiting for their siblings, they would join their art teacher, Eli Reyes, in making paper flowers, papel picado, and coloring images for our community altar. Eli incorporated the altar around a beautiful tree, giving it the organic, spontaneous and playful feeling that showcased her student’s work and invited guests to freely interact. As guests arrived, they added images of their loved ones and flowers to this meaningful center piece.
The event turned out just as we hoped - a fun, casual, family-like celebration. Students were painting each other’s Dia de Muertos skull designs and the little ones were running all around the space. We ate delicious tacos, tortas and quesadillas made by Sandra Arvizu, who has joined us in previous events at our center. And families brought desserts including pan dulce, sweet tamales, buñuelos, churros, and more. It was a feast!
Soon into the event, we paused the upbeat “carne asada” playlist and turned to Eugene Rodriguez, Fabiola Trujillo, and Lucina Rodriguez, who began our live music with some rancheras. Then, Los Cenzontles students joined, creating a large semi-circle facing our families. They continued with rancheras sung by sister duets and played Chilenas along with their academy teacher, Silvestre Martinez, who taught them these traditional songs from his home region. Parents and supporters pulled out their phones to record; it had been long since watching everyone enjoy music together.
Now it was time for our fandango, a community gathering - traditional in Veracruz, Mexico - that brings the town’s people together in enjoying Sones Jarochos. Our students switched their instruments and were joined by more jarana players around the tarima, the wooden platform used for dancing. It quickly became the inviting, party-like event we remember from our many Dia de Los Muertos celebrations at our center. Our younger students took turns with everyone that wanted to dance, while others took turns singing. We even had some of our parents, former Cenzontles students, and board members join in on the dancing.
After a few more tunes, it was piñata time! Our families took care of filling the skeleton figure with candy and brought all the materials needed for this fun moment. When the piñata’s metal hook gave out, parents took the rope and some tape to make sure the party continued. All children, teens, and a few adults were able to take a turn.
Our Dia de Los Muertos event this year was beautiful, and successful in creating a familiar space for connection. Many of us present shared that “we needed this” or “ya hacia falta” and after talking to the children, they want to have more parties like these. We greatly appreciate Tere and Juan Ortega for opening their home to us. We hope that next year we can host our public Dia de Los Muertos event and invite you to join.
written by: Verenice Velazquez
photography by: Mike Melnyk
community altar: Eli Reyes
event hosts: Los Cenzontles