Illuminating How This Traditional Festival Uniquely Celebrates the Living and Those Who’ve Passed
Mexican legend tells of a beautiful mother called La Llorona, or The Weeping Woman, destined to wander the earth for all eternity in search of her drowned children. Forever remorseful of their deaths, her white-cloaked spirit is said to appear along rivers after nightfall, wailing in the dark.
The myth of La Llorona has lurked within the marrow of Mexican lore for centuries. Much like the Boogeyman of Anglo-American tradition, her tale is often utilized by parents throughout Mexico and other regions of Central and South America to spur mischievous children into better behavior. Her folk song – in its many variations – is popularly sung on Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Now observed in many places around the world, this Mexican holiday is a complex celebration of life, death and all the inexplicable links between the two. La Llorona fits right in.
“La Llorona is a big icon of Dia de los Muertos,” says Alejandra Rico, Carbondale artist and member of newly-formed theatrical company El Colectivo. Together with Thunder River Theatre Company, the Valley Settlement Project and the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities (CCAH), the group presented during Carbondale’s annual Day of the Dead celebration on October 30. El Colectivo’s teatrino performance, or small puppet show, featured La Llorona as a central character in their play; this was not only a nod to tradition, but an example of how the legend is constantly evolving as new artists explore the significance of La Llorona’s story. Rico recalls that she first heard the tale as a child in Chihuahua, Mexico.
“She is a huge part of Mexican culture. In our puppet show, La Llorona meets a witch. The story is told by her granddaughter,” Rico says. “Its purpose is to remind us of who we are and where we come from. It’s about sharing a connection to the spirit world.”
The Day of the Dead is actually observed over the course of three days: October 31 and November 1 and 2, which align with the Roman Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. November 2 holds special significance.
“In Mexican tradition, November 2nd is the day that the dead are allowed to visit the living,” Rico explains. “It is a beautiful time when family members honor their deceased relatives.”
A blend of indigenous traditions and Catholic rituals infused during Spanish colonization, the Day of the Dead is a living piece of Mexican history. Today, many regions of Mexico still observe Dia de los Muertos as a religious holiday; elsewhere, the lens of religion is lifted to reveal a cultural celebration of the shared human relationship with death.
Although Day of the Dead celebrations coincide with Halloween in the United States and similarly feature skeletons, candy and tales of the deceased, Dia de los Muertos is not intended to inspire fear. The holiday makes a fiesta of death, pokes fun at it and recognizes it as the one truly guaranteed part of every life.
The festival also gives the living a chance to openly connect with loved ones who have passed before them. Honoring a dead family member in the traditional Mexican manner at this time of year includes building a special altar for that person and leaving ofrendas, or special offerings. These might include small toys for children, liquor for adults, favorite foods, trinkets, photographs, incense or candles. Other traditional items include yellow marigolds, thought to attract the souls of the deceased, sugar skulls and pan de muerto, or bread of the dead. Altars can be built in the home, church, or at a loved one’s grave.
“The altars are a special way of honoring that person’s life on earth,” Rico says.
While some Day of the Dead traditions are nearly universal, many of the holiday’s festivities are not. Celebrations vary from region to region especially now that the holiday is observed in so many areas outside of Mexico. For the past 11 years, even Carbondale has hosted its own unique celebration.
“Company members Valerie Haugen, Richard Lyon and I developed the event here,” says Lon Winston, Thunder River Theatre Company’s Founder and Artistic Director. Before the theatre company’s permanent space was constructed downtown, the celebration was originally held in the Carbondale Middle School cafeteria. Soon the event included Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Folklorico program, musicians, performers, and other guests. “Over the years it grew to standing room only at our new theatre,” Winston recalls. “As the celebration grew, we focused on the history and spiritual aspects of the event. Richard [Lyon] always does a benediction and ritual closure welcoming the souls of the dead.”
Five years ago, the theatre partnered with the Carbondale Council for Arts and Humanities (CCAH) to expand the event further. A community-wide parade was added, along with festivities at Carbondale’s Third Street Center. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklórico regularly performs during the celebrations as well.
“The Day of the Dead celebration has really grown to be such a lovely integrated evening,” says CCAH Executive Director Amy Kimberly, noting that the event is a time when the valley’s English and Spanish speaking communities come together to celebrate. “At the Third Street Center, we feature samples of traditional foods prepared by ladies of the local Latino community, face painting, Mexican hot chocolate, art from local school kids. We also have altars on display in the round room from October 29 through November 6,” she says. “And then of course the parade through town is so wonderful.”
The Valley Settlement Project, a new non-profit that works alongside low-income families to engage them in the local schools and community, also participated in the event for the first time this year.
“We have 30 or so staff who are involved, and we encourage members of the Latino community to participate in this event that is celebrated in their home countries,” says Valley Settlement Project Executive Director Jon Fox-Rubin. “This is such a great opportunity to share this piece of their culture with the rest of the community.”
Each autumn, when the nights have turned cold and the earth has laid itself to rest for another season, Carbondale’s Day of the Dead festivities light up the town with a colorful remembrance of those who have passed. A dazzling mix of life and death, whimsy and sincerity, cheer and melancholy, the night – in Carbondale as in Mexico and other locations around the world – never fails to inspire a sense of wonder in the living. The lines of La Llorona’s plaintive song bear repeating: …I can no longer love you, Llorona; but I will never forget you.