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West Jordan Journal

Utahns of all cultures get in on the Day of the Dead spirit

Dec 11, 2019 03:08PM ● By Alison Brimley

A literary-themed ofrenda welcomed guests to Tyler Library’s Dia de los Muertos celebration on Nov. 1. (Alison Brimley/City Journals).

By Alison Brimley | [email protected]

Years ago, someone wanting to attend a Dia de los Muertos celebration in Salt Lake might have had a hard time finding a place to party. In 2019, this is no longer the case. Celebrations of the Latin American holiday took place at Abravanel Hall, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Discovery Gateway and many more locations. 

The county library system got in on the celebration as well, hosting events at Tyler Library on Nov. 1 and Hunter Library on Nov. 2. The libraries put a literary spin on the holiday. Where people usually create ofrendas (offerings) to remember deceased family members, the library’s ofrenda honored gone-but-not-forgotten writers such as Dr. Seuss and the Bronte sisters. 

But the spirit of this event is not one of sadness or loss. It’s certainly not one of spookiness, like Halloween, even though the skeleton imagery associated with both holidays might confuse people.

Instead, the vibe is one of celebration. The library’s events included mariachi music and dancing, as well as face-painting and baked goods. Assistant librarian Maria Sommer, who oversaw the decor and planned other aspects of the event, said the holiday “is more based in reality than in fantasy, like Halloween is.” 

But because it comes on the heels of Halloween, some may confuse the two holidays as different versions of the same thing. Last year, Sommer said, some attendees at the library’s Dia de los Muertos celebration made comments along these lines. 

“Once you give them the right information, they go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ They say, ‘This makes more sense than Halloween,’” she continued with a laugh. “I like it more than Halloween myself.” 

Sommer is from Bolivia and grew up celebrating Dia de los Muertos. She noted that while all Latin American countries celebrate Dia de los Muertos in different ways, the party she organized at the library aimed for a Mexican style, because it’s more representative of the Latin population in Utah. 

“In Bolivia, we don’t do it as colorful,” Sommer said. “We do have the ofrenda, where we put [deceased loved ones’] images, flowers and things they loved so much.” 

Melissa Robison, who teaches various classes for the library system (including a zombie makeup class), was approached a few years ago and asked if she had ever done “Catrina makeup.” Robison enthusiastically said yes. This iconic makeup style (also called “calavera” makeup, after the Spanish word for “skull”) is what many people identify with Day of the Dead. 

This year, she taught this makeup style to children attending the library’s festivities. 

“I like that the library lets me teach kids how to do it themselves instead of just [having me paint] 100 kids,” Robison said. “I love that they can walk away being proud they learned something new.” 

And though this isn’t the first year the library has put on a party for the Day of the Dead, the celebrations have grown over the years. Tyler Library Manager Davie Bird said though Tyler has put on smaller-scale Dia de los Muertos programs before, this is just the second year they’ve held countywide celebrations. 

“With the backing of the county, we have a lot more funds,” Bird said. “We can hire presenters and have a lot more cool things. It has definitely evolved to something grander.”

What’s behind the boom of Dia de los Muertos parties? There are many possibilities. 

“Twenty years ago, the Latino culture was not as big as it is now in Utah,” Sommer said. “When I came [to the United States], back then I didn’t see programs like this. Or if they did celebrate it, they did it in their own communities. It is not as spread out as it is now.”

Bird agrees that there have always been celebrations for the holiday, but “there is more attempt lately to reach out and recognize our demographic. Lately in Utah, specifically Salt Lake County, people are recognizing we are not just one culture here.” 

Statistics show this is more than just a hunch. The 2018 census showed that Utah’s Hispanic population has grown by nearly 26% since 2010. And while this rate doesn’t make for the fastest-growing minority group in the state, it’s more than twice the increase in the non-Hispanic white population (just under 11%). 

It seems likely that Disney’s 2017 film “Coco,” an Academy Award winner and a box-office hit, may also have bolstered awareness of the holiday in the United States. The film follows a young Mexican boy as he journeys to meet his ancestors in the realm of the dead. 

“It made [Dia de los Muertos] mainstream and something anyone could celebrate,” Robison said. 

Whatever the reason—and whatever your cultural background—it seems Salt Lake County is ready to make Dia de los Muertos a bigger part of their holiday celebrations. 

“Our goal here is to represent that there are other holidays,” Bird said of the library’s events. “There are other cultures. We want populations that we serve here to recognize that the library is here for them.”  

“Although I am not Latino, this holiday has always been special to me because of what it celebrates and honors: family,” Robison said. “I love that it encourages you to talk about those that came before and never forget them.”