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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 31, 2001

edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Offerings from the Living

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead — or "El Dia

de los Muertos," as it is known in Spanish — is a day of

family

and community celebration and remembrance. Allied through Christian

tradition with America’s own Hallowe’en, the holiday’s macabre side

is balanced by joy. "Day of the Dead captures the idea of unity

between life and death," says Maria Evans of the Arts Council

of Princeton. Death is part of the cycle of life, but this is a

holiday

celebrated by the living.

This year, the Arts Council hosts its second annual Day of the Dead

Celebration, a free community party that takes place at the council’s

home at 102 Witherspoon Street, on Friday, November 2, from 6:30 to

9:30 p.m.

Maria Evans, an artist, art teacher, and the project’s director, is

the first to recognize that our post-September 11 community is not

a joyful one. Yet she was not inclined to cancel the event which made

its debut last year to community acclaim.

"It’s true it’s a difficult time, but I felt that we should still

have it," she says. "After all, Day of the Dead has been going

on in Mexico for hundreds of years, through all sorts of turmoil that

they have had to face." She is encouraging participation by adding

the words, "a celebration of life," to the party’s colorful

poster.

A centerpiece of the Day of the Dead party will be Latin Flavor, a

seven-piece Trenton salsa group led by the young pianist Dennis

Guevara.

Latin Flavor introduced salsa dance nights that became popular at

Trenton’s Urban Word Cafe, and has become widely known for its

repertoire

of Latin music. Guevara was recently named the winner of the 2001

Charlie Palmieri Award for an up-and-coming Latin pianist.

Also featured at the community celebration will be a Latin American

dance troupe from Princeton High School, traditional Mexican ghost

stories told in Spanish and English by a graduate student at

Princeton,

a souvenir stand, and traditional Mexican party foods contributed

by area restaurants and markets. Using the whole building, Evans says

the band will be upstairs, with food and dancing. Downstairs the WPA

Gallery will softly lit, with a more sombre mood. Yet another

downstairs

room will set up for the party’s most popular activity, a place for

children to decorate sugar skulls in the traditional way. Evans bought

her authentic sugar skulls from a vendor in Los Angeles and shopped

for colorful trinkets for the souvenir stand from Austin, Texas.

Day of the Dead is a time of fiestas and celebration and also a time

for reflecting on the afterlife, and on the memories and desires of

the dearly departed, Evans explains. Throughout Mexico there are

celebrations

in homes and in cemeteries where the dead are remembered with food,

music, stories, and artwork. Relatives dance, sing, and share memories

of their loved ones.

Markets and shops all over Mexico are filled with special decorations:

skeletons, wreaths of paper or silk flowers, candles, and fresh

flowers,

particularly marigolds which are being harvested at this time of year.

Among the edible goodies offered are skulls made of sugar and

specially

shaped sweet rolls known as "pan de muertos."

At home, family members use these special purchases

to decorate altars constructed in honor of deceased relatives or

friends.

Also on the altars are placed favorite foods, photographs, and

personal

belongings of the departed relative. In this way, when the spirits

come to visit, they will know they are still remembered. The smell

of burning incense and the light from the flickering candles help

the spirits find their way.

Young people are a key to the festival. And students at Princeton

area schools join the event by building elaborate, colorful altars

to exhibit in the Arts Council’s gallery where they will remain on

view throughout the month of November. Guided by a workbook written

by Maria Evans, students build their altars at school, and then bring

them to the council’s WPA Gallery.

A few schools declined to join this year, but not many, says Evans.

"One class is building an art altar to the artist Pablo Picasso.

Another class, from Stuart School, decided to address the September

11 tragedy more directly, with an altar dedicated to firemen as

heroes,"

she says. Other participating schools include the Princeton Charter

School, Johnson Park School, and Montgomery Middle School. A group

of home schooled children who take classes at the Arts Council also

asked to build their own altar.

Whether or not they join in the Friday night party, the students will

return to the gallery in November for a special session, led by Evans,

in which they look at and discuss all the altars.

Evans also joins in the art making. Last year she built a gallery

altar in memory of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. This year she

commemorates

Kahlo’s husband, the portly muralist Diego Rivera.

Maria Evans grew up in Michigan and attended college in California

where she was introduced to Day of the Dead. Her interest in the

holiday

grew as she came to know her Mexican sister in law. An artist and

art teacher, Evans saw the holiday as an ideal way to combine art

making for young people with an element of cultural and art history.

"In addition to making art they are learning about part of Mexican

culture." She learned last year that the community event can also

help area immigrant families from Mexico and Guatemala introduce their

children to some favorite family traditions.

Evans thinks the Council’s Day of the Dead festival may be more

important

than ever this year. "Some people may really want and need this

release. It’s kind of like the big crowds that showed up for the

Yankee

games. The people wanted to be together as a group to celebrate

something.

"Last year we had people of all ages and backgrounds and from

all walks of life having a good time. I’m hoping this year is just

as successful in bringing the whole community together."

— Nicole Plett

Day of the Dead Celebration, Arts Council of

Princeton,

102 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777. Free. Friday, November 2,

6:30 to 9:30 p.m.


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