As hundreds of people filed into the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art last weekend, they were met by a three-tier altar, called an “ofrenda,” covered in purple and orange “papel picado,” a paper banner with cut-out designs; ceramic “calaveras,” or skulls; and photos of loved ones.
The celebration of life originated in Central and Southern Mexico and has spread throughout Latin America and into the United States. Its history spans millennia, but the basis is simple: Día de Muertos is a way to remember deceased family members and honor their lives through music, art, dance and food.
“Even though it’s about death, it doesn’t have to be sad,” said Daisy Elena, a University of Oregon student who helped organize the Día de Muertos celebration. “It’s [also] a celebration of life.”
At the center of it all is Armando Morales, a UO alumnus who has organized and helped the community celebrate the holiday dear to his heart for the past 37 years.
Morales is from Guanajuato, Mexico, but in 1978 followed the love of his life to Eugene, where he has lived since. When he was a student at UO in 1981, he missed a piece of home — so he began what would become a fundamental tradition for the Eugene community: UO’s celebration of the Day of the Dead, which now draws crowds of around 2,000 people over two nights.
“In Mexico, it’s one of the most important events,” said Morales. “And now in the United States, Día de Muertos has been supplanted as one of the most important celebrations of our community.”
The holiday has grown enough in the U.S. to have its own Pixar film, “Coco,” break into pop culture. But Morales is weary of the movie.
“‘Coco’ is more like a fantasy,” said Morales. “There are positive aspects of the movie, but it’s also dangerous because we will see it like something exotic, just to be consumed.”
One of his complaints about the film was that it portrays only one style of Día de Muertos, but across Mexico and around the world, the tradition varies. The event held at the JSMA is influenced by the culture of Morales’ Guanajuato.
He even has a photo of his grandmother on the ofrenda.
When Morales was born, his mother passed away; his grandmother, Petra, raised him. She taught him about the tradition — and helped him put a photo of his mother on the ofrenda every year to remember her.
“Ever since I was a kid, that’s what we did,” Morales said. It’s what makes the holiday especially meaningful for Morales, who also surrounds the ofrenda with photos of Mexican heroes such as César Chávez.
The ofrenda also includes the photos of others’ relatives — some students from Oak Hill School and JSMA staff put photos of their family members who recently passed away.
The rest of the ofrenda is filled with other forms of symbolism. Gods of the four elements are featured in the form of candles for the god of fire, a glass of water for the god of water, fruits and “camote,” or sweet potato, for the god of earth and the papel picado for the god of air.
The ofrenda, and the holiday as a whole, retains traditions from pre-Hispanic Latin America, but it has also been influenced by the Spanish-Catholic “conquistadores” who colonized much of Latin America.
Europe already had traditions surrounding death, including All Saint’s Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ day on Nov. 2. The indigenous people in Latin America had a celebration of the dead that took place around February and March, but when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the European date reigned. Still, many local traditions were preserved.
Morales said he believes in the indigenous traditions of death surrounding Día de Muertos — Aztec legends that describe the afterlife. As he tells it, those who die a natural death go to Mictlān, the Aztec Land of the Dead. But the journey is a difficult one.
Morales said it takes two years, and one must overcome incredible obstacles: a river of blood guarded by jaguars, a range of mountains that crash into one another and an open plain showered by obsidian knives.
Morales said the deceased are buried with a blanket meant to guard them from the knives and a jade shard to defend themselves against the jaguars. The papel picado hung around the ofrenda symbolizes the peaks of mountains to guide the deceased on their journey.
The indigenous traditions weren’t kept to the ofrenda alone. The holiday also celebrates art and music as part of tradition. During the celebration at the JSMA, a group called “Identidad y Folclor,” or Identity and Culture, danced wearing traditional Mexican attire and “calavera,” or skull, face paint.
The band, P’urhembe, played live music, highlighting indigenous traditions. The group is from Michoacán, Mexico, where the indigenous community Purépecha resides. The band is made up of members of the Bautista family, headed by vocalist Nana Rosita.
With two violins to play the melodies, an upright bass used as a string and percussion instrument to keep the tempo and two guitars to harmonize and fill in the sound, the band’s music lilted with smooth, cheerful movements, accented with quick, picado plucking that kept the songs upbeat.
And not all Spanish-speakers in the room would always have known the story being told. Some of the lyrics were in indigenous languages.
“This is music from a region of Mexico that has indigenous communities and the music is pre-Hispanic,” said Fernando Franco-Soto, one of the band’s guitarists. “It has the language and certain rhythms and instrumentation.”
Franco-Soto is from an urban area of Michoacán and to some degree sees the music as an outsider, or at least understands the perspective. He likened the theme of Día de Muertos to a funeral — a time for mourning but also of celebration — and said that Purépecha culture walks the line, specifically with their music.
“Generally, a funeral is very solemn, and sure, people will cry at a funeral, but with the music, the music is generally upbeat. It’s also a way — as we say — to say goodbye happily to a parent, to a loved one,” Franco-Soto said.
Daisy Elena, a student in M.E.Ch.A. — el Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán — read a poem halfway through the performance to remember her aunt. First written in English, then translated to Spanish, Elena’s poem was an authentic example of the beauty in Día de Muertos and how it offers a conversation between the living and the deceased. “The idea of the celebration is that our loved ones are never gone,” said Elena.
Just like the tradition, as it survived Spanish colonization and worldwide migration, Elena said, so too do our ancestors live on, in spirit and in our hearts. She concluded her poem, “‘Visitarme pronto por favor. Te quiero,’ (I love you. Please visit me soon.), Daisy.”
“This is a really great way to keep someone’s spirit alive in a positive way — like what type of food did they like or what type of music did they like,” said Cheryl Hartup, JSMA curator of academic programs and Latin American art, “rather than pushing it to the back of your mind or trying to forget it.” Hartup works closely with Morales to bring artists and musicians to the museum.
Morales said he’s proud of the growth of the tradition, saying that the celebration has become a staple for the Eugene community. The celebration is a window into the beliefs and arts of a minority culture in Eugene and recognizes the values that we all share, regardless of race or origin.
“I celebrate because it’s part of my culture,” Morales said. “But what I see here is also a form of combating racism, a form of culture that we feel and that we share.”