Day of the Dead observances grow in Kalamazoo as more understand traditions behind the celebrations

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Día de los Muertos was not part of the culture in Lori Mercedes-Santiago's native Nicaragua. 

She did, however, help establish the celebration in Kalamazoo when she was executive director of the Kalamazoo Hispanic American Council (now El Concilio) in 2014. 

The Day of the Dead, a Mexican tradition of welcoming the spirits of loved ones, outgrew the council's gym, and this year will be held at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center on Nov. 2, at 6:15 pm. 

Her husband is from Mexico and knew all about Día de los Muertos. When Mercedes-Santiago oversaw the first local community celebration, she made sure to learn about the day of remembrance that goes back around 3,000 years to the indigenous Aztec civilization. When Catholic Spaniards came, the Aztec traditions were combined with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

It was the Aztecs' belief that "the veil that separates our two realms would get very thin during this time, and the spirits would be able to cross over," she says.

The living would then hold a festival for the dead. Mercedes-Santiago wanted this for both the Hispanic community and everyone else in Kalamazoo. 
Skeletons are not frightening on Día de los Muertos.
It was initially difficult to get local sponsors for the event, who worried "that it would be all morbid and dark," she says. At the same time, "the media was putting all this negativity on Hispanics -- they're illegals, they're this, they're that.... children hearing that you're not wanted, you're not welcomed here." 

It was important for the council to display the "beautiful enrichment of our culture," she says. For their first Day of the Dead in Kalamazoo, no one was an "illegal" that day. "Everybody was so proud," she says.

She loved seeing the gym packed with people, folkloric dancers, traditional dress, flowers, food and the altars devoted to those who'd passed. 

But it was on last year's Day of the Dead when the deep meaning of the festival hit her. 

'We laugh, and then we cry, and then we laugh again.'

In May of 2018, her father, suffering from PTSD as a veteran of the Nicaraguan Revolution, took his own life. 

It was sudden and devastating for the family. 

The "Day" is typically celebrated on Nov. 2 but depending upon various regional traditions it can span three days, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, when families spend time together preparing to honor their departed loved ones and work on altars.  

"You can feel it in the air, almost like you are expecting those loved ones to arrive," Mercedes-Santiago says. 

Her two daughters, ages 12 and 7, stayed home from school. They spent the night cooking her father's favorite foods, making paper flowers and gathering mementos and photos of him for the altar. 

During their work, they spent time telling stories about her father. "We'd laugh, and then we'd cry, and then we'd laugh again."

She describes the experience as "bittersweet" with a strong sense of "anticipation."

"I don't know how to explain it to you, it was almost like he arrived." The pain of loss was still there for her. "I still miss him. But on Day of the Dead, it's kind of like I get to capture his spirit for a fraction of a second." 

'We're all going to the same place.'

There are misconceptions about Day of the Dead -- that its sort of a Mexican Halloween with sugar skulls and people wearing skeleton makeup. 

Thanks to a growing Hispanic-American population, the celebration is taking root in the U.S. But Mercedes-Santiago worries that it could lose its meaning, like the Americanized Cinco de Mayo. It's becoming mainstream, she thinks, thanks to its inclusion in popular culture, as in Disney Pixar's 2017 animated "Coco".

Sofia Ovalle-Lopez, El Concilio assistant director and fund development head, grew up with the tradition in Mexico. 

"I think there's a big misconception that we're celebrating death, that we're honoring death," she says. "But that's not the case. I grew up with my parents telling me that this is the time when we remember our loved ones, that we celebrate because we celebrate their lives."
Sofia Ovalle-Lopez, El Concilio assistant director and fund development head.
Ovalle-Lopez remembers when "we'd go to the cemetery, and we'd bring flowers to our loved ones who had passed away. " She has vivid memories of "everything looking so pretty. If you think of a funeral, people are crying and everything's black, you're sad. But on Day of the Dead, there's a lot of light, we have candles everywhere, the cemetery looks its best, it's full of flowers, it's full of people. It's a time for family to get together," she says.

"My mom passed away when I was little. She is buried in Mexico. And now, we ask my aunt or uncle, 'Hey, it's Day of the Dead, can you bring her some flowers?'... It's a special thing. Yes, it's sad to remember your loved ones, but that (sadness) is not the point of the day."

To those outside of the culture, some traditions of the Day might look a bit morbid or more-fitting to Halloween, like La Calavera Catrina, the "dapper skeletons" in elegant female attire. 

The image is thought to have been started by political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s. His cartoon of "Calavera Catrina" mocked Mexicans who tried to look like aristocratic Europeans -- all decked out in rich finery, but the bones showing underneath are a reminder that, for both rich and poor, death was inevitable.

"The Catrinas, the skeletons, are meant to be happy, like a funny representation of the dead," Ovalle-Lopez says.
A 1913 newspaper cartoon of ”Calavera Catrina” by José Guadalupe Posada, which poked fun at Mexicans who dressed like aristocratic Europeans.
Catrinas in their finery are part of the festivities (El Concilio will hold a Catrina contest at their Day of the Dead), but they have a deeper meaning, she points out: "No matter how many things you might be wearing, in the end, you're a skeleton inside. We're all going to the same place." 

Mercedes-Santiago says, "Hispanics, we tend to be a little bit pessimistic, so we prepare for the worst, but hope for the best." 

She adds, "I don't want to say we joke about it," but the Catrinas are a way to invite Death to the party. "I know that Death is coming, so I'm going to get to know you! So let's dance a little, let's go and have some fun! So we laugh with her.... It brings a little bit of humor. You can cry about it, but laugh about it." 

Further deepening her feelings for the festival is her survival of two bouts with cancer. "It's a way for me and my girls to talk about how I'm not always going to be here," she says.

She tells her daughters, "I want you to remember the good things about me." They'll joke about her future altar. "If I come back and I don't see these things...! And we laugh." They have a way to face the inevitable, to plan for that day when her girls can "have a drink with me, remember me." 

Day of the Dead for all Kalamazoo

The wider community of Kalamazoo has warmed up to the Day. The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo has given El Concilio an Arts Fund of Kalamazoo County Grant for the Nov. 2 celebration. The Arts Council will also host an altar remembering local artists lost in the past year, in the Epic Center for Art Hop Nov. 1.

Western Michigan University's Waldo Library will have an altar on its second floor. The altar has been the WMU Spanish department's tradition for over 15 years, master faculty member Mariola Pérez de la Cruz says.
Cempasuchitl flowers, marigolds that only bloom during the Day of the Dead season, are believed to attract the spirits with their scent.
The library altar isn't set up for anyone specific, "it's very general, dedicated to the Catrina," Gladys Cruz Mendoza, Spanish Department teaching assistant, says. 

It takes her back to her life in the southern state of Oaxaca, memories of going to loved ones' graves "with our family members, singing, dancing at the cemetery until midnight," she says. 

"We make the altars for the people who are not here anymore, to remember them. Because for us, people die when you don't remember them anymore," she says. 

Mercedes-Santiago has shared her experience of the celebration with non-Hispanic friends who've lost loved ones, she says. She suggests that for Day of the Dead, "make their favorite meal. They like cigars? Let's bring some cigars, drinks, whatever. And talk about them."

It's a way to keep the memory of lost loved ones alive. "That's the beautiful part about this tradition.... On that day, you can cry and laugh at the same time. And have a drink, have whatever you'd like, remember how silly they were.... I don't know if it's magic, but on that day you can almost feel like they're right there. They're crying with you or laughing with you," she says.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.