Skulls and celebrations: this Saturday, Día de Muertos is back in Cleveland

Día de Muertos, a jubilant celebration honoring life and remembering the dead, brings the rich traditions of Latin America back to Cleveland on October 29.
Aztec dancers taking a break from their routines to march in the annual Skulls and Skeletons Procession at the 2021 event. (Photo courtesy of Hector Castellanos-Lara)

For years, Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration, traveled around Cleveland in search of a home. Sometimes, the festival didn’t happen at all – an emptiness recalled by recent pandemic interruptions. Now, Día is back: On October 29, the celebration of life, remembrance, and the rich traditions of Latin America returns to Cleveland Public Theater, the celebration’s home since 2008.

Local artist Hector Castellanos-Lara is once again taking the reins as artistic director of this free all-ages event, gathering talent from all over Greater Cleveland to build altars, perform live music, and dance the night away. Participants are invited to come with their faces painted, as Covid restrictions will prevent on-site service. There will be hot food and drinks, the annual costumed parade, mariachi bands, Aztec dancers, and even a wedding. There will also be an opportunity to write messages to deceased loved ones, which will be ceremonially burned at the end of the day to help express feelings, heal, and feel closer to the community.

The annual Skulls and Skeletons Procession taking off from the church at Cleveland Public Theater at a prior year’s celebration. (Photo courtesy of Hector Castellanos-Lara)

Día is a Celebration

“We are celebrating life,” remarked Castellanos-Lara. That may seem backwards to some, given the skulls and skeletons on parade for this Day of the Dead, but Día is a joyful time rather than a mournful one. Mexico is the country most associated with Día, but the tradition is observed in many other Latin American countries as well, with some cities holding very elaborate celebrations and others taking a simpler, quieter route.

“Día de Muertos is one of the most important celebrations in Mexico, which goes back to the Pre-Hispanic era,” commented Marcela Rodriguez-Gonzalez, Director of Community Development for Cleveland Play House. “Nowadays, it has become a celebration holding a mix of indigenous and Catholic elements, commemorating death as another element of life.”

Monserrat Monterrubio, Small Business Coordinator at Metro West CDO and a member of Comité Mexicano de Cleveland, described how this is truly a celebration rather than a day of mourning. “To me and the people living in Oaxaca, Mexico, Día de Muertos is the day we get to spend with the loved ones that left this Earth earlier than us,” she explained. “Opposed to what many may think, Día de Muertos is not a sad day. It is, in fact, one of the happiest days in Mexico. And just as in any other party, we get ready with great food, drinks, fireworks, candles, and flowers to welcome those who can only visit us once a year.”

In Mexico, la ofrenda – the altar – can be a very grand display, with every single item carrying meaning and great significance. Candles provide light for the spirits so they don’t have to travel in the dark; personal items, such as favorite foods, toys, or musical instruments, remind both the living and the dead of happy days long past. Marigold petals sometimes form paths through town streets, their alluringly pungent perfume providing a scent for the deceased to follow.

Altars on display inside the church in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Hector Castellanos-Lara)

Día is for Everyone

Latin America is not the only place in the world that has customs for remembering the dead. “Dia de los Muertos goes back to Aztec traditions, ancient civilizations,” said Castellanos-Lara. “But thanks to this event, people coming from Korea, Cambodia, they say they have similar ways of honoring their ancestors. Mexico is the main country that celebrates Día, but in many other places similar traditions are very strong.” He added that there is no single correct way to celebrate Día, commenting, “The celebration is for everybody.”

“The most important message is that all people are welcome, no matter what color or beliefs,” said Castellanos-Lara. In past years, approximately 60-75% of Día attendees have been non-Latino, with a strong showing coming from the Heights and the Asian community. Castellanos-Lara sees this as a sign that honoring those we have lost while embracing the beautiful vitality of the world around us is a universal, rather than uniquely cultural, desire. 

Día is also a celebration of art and music, the very heart of Cleveland. It’s a way for the community to come together and appreciate the weeks to months of effort that local artists have put into their installations, which range from very traditional works to more contemporary takes on this centuries-old custom.

“I am honored to be a part of a city that accepts different cultures and celebrates the traditions of my community,” said Rodriguez-Gonzalez, who is also a member of Comité Mexicano.

Mariachi Santa Cecilia de Painesville posing with giant skeletons at the 2015 Skulls and Skeletons Procession. (Photo courtesy of Hector Castellanos-Lara)

Día is Cleveland Art History

Día de Muertos Ohio has changed significantly since its humble beginnings in the mid-90s, traveling from Little Italy to Tremont, and from East 33rd to Detroit Shoreway. 

“Salvador Gonzales,” said Castellanos-Lara. “The way I learned Día de Muertos in the United States is because of Salvador Gonzales, a friend of mine. And thanks to him, the only folk art gallery in Little Italy was because of him, for a little while.” 

Gonzales, who worked for the Cleveland Museum of Art, would throw Día celebrations in his gallery during the mid to late 90s, with friends from the museum’s Parade the Circle joining in to simulate Mexican architecture and a cemetery by making papier maché decorations. Together, they made elaborate installations, incorporating candles, incense, portraits, food, and as many authentic touches as they could to bring Día to life. 

“It’s too bad he didn’t reach other parts of Cleveland, or maybe it just wasn’t the right time yet,” reminisced Castellanos-Lara. “It’s something I will never forget.”

As time went on, however, the celebration grew. “In 1999, we did something similar in Lincoln Park in Tremont,” he continued. Thanks to Escuela Popular, a nonprofit organization now known as Immigrant Worker Project, Gonzales and Castellanos-Lara were able to bring Día to the public again. For two hours, hot chocolate, sweet bread, and candies were given away while Mexican dancers spun to music pumping out over simple speakers and cardboard skull masks were decorated by the public. It was enough, though, because the following year people were bussing in from Kent State to join in on the fun.

Tremont proved a temporary home for Día, as 2001 was the last year Lincoln Park saw its Catrina-faced revelers. “After that,” said Castellanos-Lara, “nobody was doing it.” 2002 and 2003 were empty years; Gonzales and Castellanos-Lara knew there was enough interest for a steady venue, but Día had no home.

Sugar skulls (calaveras de azucar) decorated and on display at a prior year’s celebration. (Photo courtesy of Hector Castellanos-Lara)

In 2004, they moved to the parish hall of La Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Church on Detroit Avenue. With even more friends, including Tom Evert and Susana Weingarten of DANCEVERT as well as the late Roberto Ocasio, they were able to put on a play, perform live Latin jazz, and have local artists build altars like the ones we see today.

Gonzales informed Castellanos-Lara in 2005 that the Italian artist Giancarlo Calicchia had purchased a church on East 33rd between St. Clair and Superior that could be used for Día. It was big, empty, and full of spiderwebs and dust. But Gonzales had told Calicchia not to change a thing; it was perfect.

“It was a magic thing, the way it happened,” recalled Castellanos-Lara. “We were able to bring together 17 artists. We hired a band from Painesville; they were very young, but now they are real serious mariachi.” They paraded down the narrow streets, had their photograph printed in the Plain Dealer, and celebrated for three days. Around 900 people came that Saturday alone. “All these people,” he continued, “they were following the traditions, but they liked the art. It was an art movement.”

Día was picked up by Cleveland Public Theater in 2008, where it has flourished since those early days in Little Italy. “Every fall, this vibrant festival fills the campus with music, food, and stunning art – and we remember, honor, and celebrate our loved ones,” said Cleveland Public Theater Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan. “The event continues to grow in so many beautiful ways – the work Día de Muertos Ohio does in the community is exceptional.”

Día is held at the Cleveland Public Theater Church/Parish Hall at 6205 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, 44102, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. The “Skulls and Skeletons Procession” (“Procesión de Calaveras y Esqueletos”) will be happening from 3:30-4:15. Face painting for the parade is not being offered this year. All are invited to attend the wedding happening in the cemetery at 2 p.m., just prior to the parade.

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