Celebration of the dead keeps Mexican tradition alive

Rosa E. Ruiz wears an elaborate costume during a celebration of the Mexican tradition, Day of the Dead, at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Rosa E. Ruiz wears an elaborate costume during a celebration of the Mexican tradition, Day of the Dead, at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

The Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, arrived in Philadelphia this weekend at the Penn Museum. Colorful dresses and masks showcased the diversity of the event as people of all ages came to celebrate and learn about the tradition.

A full lineup of performers entertained participants for more than five hours during the celebration. The event was organized by the Penn Museum, the Mexican Cultural Center, and the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia.

Jangrea Santa Maria, 18, from Philadelphia dances during the Day of the Dead celebration at the Penn Museum. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
Alexander De los Santos, 8, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, watches a team of dancers perform during a Day of the Dead celebration at the Penn Museum. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
Ivan Medina performs at the Penn Museum’s Day of the Dead celebration. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
Audience members watch traditional Mexican dancers during the Day of the Dead celebration at the Penn Museum. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
A dancer wears rattling ankle bracelets, called chachayotes, during a performance at the Penn Museum’s Day of the Dead celebration. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
Dancers perform at the Penn Museum’s Day of the Dead celebration. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Though the tradition originated in Mexico, the growing number of Mexican immigrants have brought the holiday with them to places like Philadelphia. People of Mexican heritage traditionally see the Day of the Dead not as a day of sadness, but rather as a day of celebration, believing that deceased loved ones would awake and celebrate with them on that day. Often celebrated alongside Halloween, the Day of the Dead is a multi-day holiday that is observed from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

This is the eighth year the Penn Museum has hosted the Day of the Dead. Ellen Owens, Director of Learning and Public Engagement at the Penn Museum, said every year she sees this event grow. The celebration is part of a series of events the Penn Museum calls CultureFest.

This year the event included special altars, or ofrendas, by artists Cesar Viveros and Francisco Gorgua. Ofrendas, meaning “offerings” in Spanish, are created to honor ancestors and deceased loved ones.

The main altar, or ofrenda, honors ancestors and deceased loved ones. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
Artists Cesar Viveros (left) and Francisco Gorgua created the main altar for the Penn Museum’s Day of the Dead celebration. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
Artist Francisco Gorgua created wooden elements for the main altar, working with Cesar Viveros, who has created the main ofrenda at the Penn Museum for several years. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Viveros, who is also a mural painter, has created the main ofrenda at the Penn Museum for several years. However, this year was special as it incorporated wooden art by Gorgua. For Viveros, the project is an opportunity to go beyond the work he does as a mural painter.

“Murals are a public art, and I have to incorporate what the public wants to see,” Viveros said. “And to me the alters are personal.”

The event serves as a connection for those of Mexican heritage who feel far away from their home country, yet want to continue the tradition they grew up with. There was a large selection of activities for the children including tissue paper crafting, face painting, and Spanish lessons.

Leo Ramirez, 6, from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, creates tissue paper flowers. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
Alexia Ramos takes pictures of her cousins in front of an altar during the Day of the Dead celebration at the Penn Museum. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)
Augie Kimball, 6, from Philadelphia, poses in front of the main altar dressed as a luchador, a Mexican professional wrestler. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Six-year old Augie Kimball from Philadelphia wore a luchador mask, the costume worn by professional wrestlers in Mexico. He said that the only exposure he had to the holiday was watching Pixar’s 2017 film Coco. Though he’s visited Mexico several times, his mother, Patty West, said it’s important for her to expose her son to events where he can learn about other cultures, especially at an age where he’s making friends.

To Araceli Guenther, Board President of the Mexican Cultural Center, the participation of the children in an event like this is crucial to the understanding of their culture.

“This is very important. Particularly to children who probably haven’t lived in Mexico,” Guenther said. “As they [immigrant families] come to the U.S., I see a lot of children with them. The activities keep their heritage alive. At least until they understand the significance of the celebration to their family.”

Araceli Guenther, Board President of the Mexican Cultural Center (left), takes a selfie with Rosa E. Ruiz. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

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