Despite happening right next to each other, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) have very little in common. Local artist and Santero and muertos scholar Jerry Vigil explains that it's all about intent. While Halloween goes for scares and candy, Dia de los Muertos is for honoring deceased loved ones.
Families set extra places at dinner and serve the deceased's favorite foods. In some places, they set up altars stacked with ofrendas — offerings — of food and, if applicable, liquor and tobacco. On the second day, families clean and decorate loved ones' graves, filling the graveyard with color and sound. Vigil says there's a lot of variation between different parts of Mexico, too.
"Day of the Dead is for each individual or for each individual family and how they wish to celebrate their loved ones," Vigil says. But that doesn't mean carte blanche to add horror imagery.
"If you're experiencing another culture, it's best to learn all about it and celebrate it correctly before you start adding things in," he says.
The holiday comes from the month-long Aztec celebration of the dead and appeasement of their death gods. Over the course of the European conquest of Mesoamerica, the celebration was syncretized into the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day, including a shift from August to early November. That November date was taken from the Gaelic Samhain festival, which mirrors some of the beliefs and practices of Dia de los Muertos.
"Many cultures that are not western Christian-based do celebrate their elders and their deceased ones in a fashion somewhat similar to this," says Vigil, noting the Japanese Obon and Chinese Qingming festivals, both of which involve cleaning ancestors' graves.
Vigil calls its one of his favorite holidays, in part because of the many ways it can grow. In Denver, for instance, the celebration draws from both its traditional roots and its US revival as part of the Chicano movement, blending contemporary art with traditional dances. Those elements inform The Day of the Dead, a Fine Arts Center exhibit that Vigil co-curated with Holly Parker, Commercial Gallery & Retail Manager at the FAC. He organized an Aztec invocation dance for the opening, which took place on Friday, Oct. 7, and the exhibit features Pikes Peak- and Denver-area artists' interpretations of the holiday.
There is, Vigil notes, an oddity with how Dia de los Muertos and Hispanic/Latino culture moved through Colorado. From Pueblo to the New Mexico border, Hispanic culture is commonplace. And Denver has strong ties to the Chicano movement. But the Springs is an anomaly
"Sixteen percent of the population here in Colorado Springs is Hispanic or Latino, but there's nothing substantial that represents that culture," says Vigil. "Something happened in Colorado Springs. Every brown person just bypassed the Springs... and it seems very odd to me, because in the natural progression of migration, you don't skip places."