By Aspen Anderson and Christina Wardwell
Along a hallway at El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill, bright orange paper-mache marigolds frame decorated ofrendas celebrating people who have passed, people who disappeared in political coups, and Mother Earth.
Amidst the commercialization of El Dia de los Muertos in the United States, Seattle’s El Centro de la Raza’s celebration stands apart– for its longevity and its welcoming community atmosphere. In its most recent November event — El Centro’s 18th Dia de los Muertos — ofrendas not only explored the Indigenous roots of the holiday in Mexico, but also reflections on current and historic social-justice issues in Seattle.
El Centro’s annual celebration attracts a huge crowd and is one of the most recognized Dia de los Muertos events in Seattle. But, elsewhere, are the holiday and its traditional symbols being disrespectfully appropriated and commercialized? It’s a complex issue, but it seems a meaningful conversation is underway.
Last November, NPR released a podcast titled, “Make your own ancestral altar at home: A cross-cultural guide.” One year ago, a University of Washington student podcast was broadcast on the KVRU Seattle community radio named “Add ofrenda to your vocabulary.”
On Nov 2., U.S. Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Jesús García (D-Ill.) introduced a resolution commemorating Día de los Muertos. The resolution recognizes the impact of COVID-19, noting that over 91,000 Latinos, 743,000 Americans and 5 million people globally have been affected by the pandemic. The lawmakers underscore the cultural significance of Día de los Muertos, emphasizing its importance especially for immigrant communities.
But should everyone celebrate El Dia de los Muertos?
“Everybody has ancestors or loved ones they can honor,” said UW Professor Michelle Habell-Pallan. And participation is welcome as long as people have an understanding of the traditions and history, and approach it with respect. “It’s not supposed to be scary like Halloween. It is supposed to be a celebration of life,” Habell-Pallan said.
Habell-Pallan has a longstanding history with El Centro de la Raza and teaches in the field of Chicana/o and Latina/o studies in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies on the Seattle campus. She has taught many classes in conjunction with El Centro de la Raza, where many of her students have created their own ofrendas.
This year at El Centro, a large ofrenda that filled a small closet-like space from floor to ceiling, acknowledged the survivors of the 50th anniversary of the Chilean military coup, which ousted the democratically elected President Salvador Allende. Many suffered violence and were forced into exile, with some finding refuge at–and playing a vital role in–El Centro.
Habbell-Pallan explains that ofrendas are adorned with objects chosen for their personal connection with the individual being honored. They range from from their favorite foods and drinks to meaningful poems or song lyrics.
“An ofrenda is a gift from the heart where nothing in return is expected,” Habbell-Pallan said.
Some clear examples of disrespectful appropriation, she said, are Nike’s Dia de Muertos shoes and grocery store napkins with skulls. She says these objects fail to honor the deep roots of the tradition.
The Disney movie “Coco,” Habbell-Pallan said, initially faced backlash when the entertainment giant attempted to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos.” And, in the end, Disney is making a profit off of an ancient tradition.
But, she said, “Coco” is trying to do some good, bringing nuanced representations to a more mainstream audience, such as the idea of third death as the final death, or the death when people forget you.
“Kids make fun of Mexican culture. I grew up with that. So to have a film, like ‘Coco,’ if you’re a child, that is really beautifully done, that means something,” Habbell-Pallan said.
In Habbell-Pallan’s own family, El Dia de los Muertos celebrations at El Centro are interwoven into her daughter’s larger sense of self.
“For now, these traditions are part of her, her past, right? They’re part of her current moment. But they also fit with that sense of who she is,” Habbell-Pallan said. The memories she formed at El Centro through the years not only give her a feeling of home, but also contribute to a broader sense of community.
This year at El Centro, women of all ages gathered in an old classroom to model dresses as part of the center’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration on Nov. 4. Their faces painted like calaveras, or skulls, they showcased two kinds of dresses for sale – a traditional quinceañera dress, and a creation by a Mexican designer.
Mia Ramirez, a model for the dresses, said she was participating to honor her late mother.
“A lot of people forget about their family members or just worry about their life and don’t think about those who they don’t have left. We’re still here, they’re not, but we still love them and they’re still going to come back to us,” Ramirez said. “We say ‘Que viven los nuestros muertos,’ meaning may those who have passed still live.”
Model Gladys German said the holiday is grounded in both mourning and celebration.
“It has a different significance for every individual,” German said. “You can appreciate the people that are here and the people that have left. I think anyone can do it. It’s not just Mexicans. Everyone has memories of loved ones. Everyone has a right to celebrate”.
Alma and Lizeth Acevedo, the owners of Alma’s Beauty Studio in Kent, provided and applied makeup for the event. They became connected with El Centro de la Raza the way most people are, through friends, family and word of mouth.
“We represent Mexico and I am really proud to be a part of Mexico. I am really happy that more people are involved with our tradition and culture,” Alma Acevedo said.
Each year, El Centro highlights a different theme for the celebration. This year’s theme –“Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro,” or “The People without memory is a people without a future”– underscores the importance of remembering. The celebration paid tribute to Mother Earth and environmental injustices, as well as to people who have lost their lives in homelessness and to gun violence. Social-justice heroes were also centered, including Roberto Maestas, a co-founder of El Centro.
Daniela Lizarraga, a systems navigator at El Centro, said El Dia de los Muertos is for community. “It does unite a lot of people in a way that celebrating life is universal, and it intersects with a lot of philosophies and religions.”
Lizarraga wants the community of Seattle to know that El Centro’s community is there for them.
“We have passion for empowering our community, that we’re there for people, that we take our time, that we meet people where they’re at, in any walk of life,” Lizarraga said.
Ivan Montes, who works with the environmental justice program at El Centro de la Raza, created an ofrenda focused on the environment. Pictures and a globe represented the environment, and a river represented how animals and people drink from the same stream.
“I’m a modern Hispanic person. Like, I’m first generation here, and I love the traditions, but I also want to create my own traditions,” Montes said.
He said El Dia de los Muertos in the United States is not always honored correctly. “ We hear it is just like its just Mexican Halloween. It’s not.
”These are my most personal, these are my dearest memories,” Montes said. “These are my greatest losses. And here it is on display.