Día De Los Muertos Celebration

Friday, Nov. 1, 6–10 p.m., free

Artspace, Raleigh

Julio Gonzalez felt that he should intervene when some people showed up at his Mayan-themed art opening in Charlotte in 2012 who were painted like calaveras, or skulls, which are traditionally used to celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Gonzalez, who identifies as Mexican, wasn’t amused.

“Oh, this is your last-minute choice because it’s easy,” Gonzalez remembers thinking. “You have no idea of the connection.”

Gonzalez didn’t say anything in the moment, but as the years went by, he began to notice more Día de los Muertos decorations showing up in stores, completely severed from their traditions.

This led him to start his annual project Día de los Casi Muertos, or “Day of the Almost Dead,” an exploration of the inevitability of death through photography, video, and body painting. In its current form, the exhibit has occurred since 2016, although Gonzalez used some early photos in a 2013 exhibit. This year’s version is on view at Artspace in Raleigh through November 14, and on First Friday, it becomes the center of a Día de los Muertos celebration.

The goal of the project is to remind us that the holiday is so much more than bright skull makeup and votive candles. In recent years, Día de los Muertos has only become more commercialized, breeding misconceptions about the holiday. Calaveras and other Día de los Muertos-inspired goods sit close to the Halloween decorations at your local Target, as if these events were one and the same.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Día de los Muertos, which falls on Friday and Saturday this year, came from the combination of traditional Aztec celebrations and the imported values of Catholicism. It often involves setting up altars, or ofrendas, with photos of late family members, flowers, and the dead’s favorite things. It is also a time for graves to be cleaned and food to be prepared for the dead’s journey to the afterlife. While it is mainly celebrated in Mexico, other parts of Latin America have joined the festivities. The event is colorful and vibrant and has a mystical quality, but the core of it is simply to celebrate the dead.

Death is a touchy subject in the United States. While we know it is something we all must come to terms with, it tends to be pushed to the far reaches of the brain until we lose someone we know.

“We’ll talk about the food that we love,” Gonzalez says. “We all eat, but we don’t talk about this other thing that we all go through. You find people need an outlet.”

Gonzalez, a painter based in Charlotte, created Día de los Casi Muertos to remind us of the inevitable. It takes a group of five to complete the full body paint, a process that takes up to seven hours. It’s as exhausting for the models, who must stand during the entirety of the process, as it is for the artists. The end result, however, is bodies consumed by bright colors and designs, posed among marigolds and pictures of loved ones. They are calaveras come to life.

“One of the individuals that posed said that’s the first time that she felt beautiful,” Gonzalez says.

The second aspect of the exhibit is video interviews in which subjects talk about their first experience with death. In a video from 2016 on Gonzalez’s website, people discuss their parents, grandparents, or total strangers. One girl talks about losing her father; in the next story, a man speaks of a great-grandmother’s funeral that he vaguely remembers.

The holiday itself can bring healing for those who celebrate it. Angela Salamanca, owner of Centro Mexican restaurant in Raleigh, built her first ofrenda with her kitchen staff the year her sister died by suicide. Salamanca is Colombian, but she now sets up the ofrendas herself, and has moved the altar from the restaurant to Oakwood Cemetery, so the public can place their photos and celebrate their loved ones together.

“For me, it’s definitely meant a road to heal my pain from the way that my sister died and have a different relationship with that,” Salamanca says. “More than anything, it’s to educate my children about how important it is to speak about death.”

While Gonzalez’s exhibit isn’t “traditional,” it gives him a way to celebrate Día de los Muertos in a way that speaks to Latin Americans living in the United States.

“Within two generations you’re quote-unquote American, whatever that means,” he says. “It’s very hard to retain your traditions, because America is a melting pot and it gobbles everything up. So I think everyone kind of does it their own way.”

Celebrate Día de los Muertos Around the Triangle

Día de los Muertos spans multiple days: Día de los Inocentes, when children are said to reunite with their families, falls on November 1, while Día de los Muertos comes November 2 and brings with it the souls of adults. If you’re interested in celebrating the holiday, there are tons of events happening in the Triangle. However, please remember to be respectful of the families, the dead, and the traditions. These days are about so much more than face paint.

Oakwood Cemetery ofrendas: Through Nov 2. Raleigh restaurant Centro has been placing ofrendas for the last five years, but this year, it partnered with Raleigh’s Arts Commission to build more of them, which are viewable at Oakwood Cemetery. Owner Angela Salamanca encourages folks to bring their own pictures and trinkets, which will be used in future altars. Historic Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh.

Día de los Muertos Fiesta and Fundraiser: Nov. 2, 7 p.m. $50. Benefitting Brentwood Boys & Girls Club. Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria, Raleigh. 

El Centro Hispano: Nov. 1, 4 p.m. Altar and music. El Centro Hispano, Carrboro. 

Comite Popular Somos Raleigh: Nov. 1–2, 2000 Avondale Drive, Durham. 

Día de Muertos con Revista Latina NC: Nov. 2, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. 2809 Spring Forest Road, Raleigh.

DSA Student Showcase: Día de los Muertos Altars: Through Nov. 3. Hosted through Durham School of the Arts. Museum of Durham History, Durham. 

Contact digital content manager Sara Pequeño at spequeno@indyweek.com.

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