When October rolls around and summer greenery into a blur of oranges and reds, most people start planning for Halloween. The Boneyfiddle Arts Center (BAC), however, has been throwing themselves into the colorful festivities of the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. In honor of Portsmouth’s sister city, Orizaba, Mexico, BAC has celebrated the Mexican honoring of the dead since its opening three years ago.
The front displays of the building have been taken over by photographs of the actual celebrations in Mexico, images of Mexican folklore, an altar dedicated to late prominent artists and a memorial wall and altar dedicated to locals, where the public is welcomed to pin a picture of a lost loved one.
The building is also decorated in artwork done by Portsmouth West Elementary, Portsmouth East and Portsmouth High School. Portsmouth West Elementary decorated many of the hung coloring pages and Portsmouth High School decorated Catrina skulls. Coloring pages will be available for kids to color and hang throughout the events they host this year.
Dia de los Muertos provides a way to express and transform loss into an experience of beauty. The holiday is a blend of indigenous Aztec and Spanish Christian belief where life is celebrated and those who once lived remembered. The holiday is very colorful and involves flowers, salts, resigns, banners, and cemetery decorations, which have all sparked artistic inspiration over the years.
“We’re trying to add an art education and cultural piece because we have images of traditional folk art, images from famous Mexican artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, we have a lot of the Mexican Catrinas and skeletons from José Guadalupe Posada,” BAC Director Jamie Benedict said.
Benedict explained that BAC is always trying to find something culturally relevant that the community can participate in with their exhibits. Celebrating Dia de los Muertos seemed to be a natural fit for their programming and have done so since.
One of the community oriented facets of the Diade los Muertos celebration is their community memorial wall, where locals are welcome to post photos of their deceased loved ones. The wall is in the back of the building and features many of the traditional decorations and artwork that is normally found at the Mexican altars.
“It’s not a sad thing, it’s funny. That is why all of the skeletons and skulls are in dancing poses,” Benedict said. “But a lot of what you see will be symbolic. There will be water and stuff left out for spirits on their return to visit their loved ones. They have food, a bread a called Pan de Muerto. If someone who died loved chocolate or smoking, they’d leave some out for them. Photos are often left out with orange marigolds. They have different elements of a traditional altar as the spirits come to celebrate life.”
The biggest event for the month-long celebration is the fundraising dinner, a Taste of Mexico. The dinner is on Oct. 12 from 5-8 p.m. It will have Mexican influenced food such as jalapeno poppers, a quesadilla bar, Mexican brownies, Day of the Dead Chocolates, Mexican Wedding Cookies and more. They will also be serving Mexican soft drinks, Portsmouth Brewery beers and Margaritas. Members ticket prices are only $20, presale tickets are $25 and door prices will be $30.
Another activity BAC has this month is the decorating of traditional sugar skulls. Benedict and volunteer Karen Davis have premade sugar skulls that can be decorated with icing. The skulls come in sizes small, medium and large, prices reflecting the size at $6, $8 and $12. They will also have edible cookies that will be on sale for two for a $1 at the same time. The sugar skull decorating will be on Sat., Oct. 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
BAC will wrap up the celebration with a pumpkin contest on Oct. 26. Pre-carved or decorated pumpkins are welcome. The event will run from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.. The prizes for the contest will be announced at 1 p.m..
“I think it is a really, really beautiful way of honoring life, because it really embraces life as a part of life so that you’re really not focusing on the death so much as the celebration of the life you had the opportunity to share. It is just a really beautiful ritual that evolved from traditional Catholicism and native Aztec beliefs.”