Día de los Muertos celebration offers comfort and community connection

A lady places a fan on a white covered altar.
Indra Arriago Delgado prepares her ofrenda for a loved one who passed for Día de los Muertos. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Día de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” is a Mexican and Mexican-diaspora celebration of people who have died and people have been celebrating the holiday publicly in Anchorage for 19 years. According to belief, in early November every year, the dead can visit the human realm and the living welcome them with altars displaying lights, food, flowers, photos and art. The holiday has Indigenous roots and is filled with both joy and mourning.

Event organizers Indra Arriaga Delgado and Itzel Zagal were recently preparing Out North Gallery in Anchorage for the holiday, helping direct people who set up altars and art around the room. Delgado said Día de los Muertos is a day when people connect and celebrate ancestors and loved ones who have died. 

“It’s a way of spending time with them because we believe that on this day, they come back and you coexist with them,” Delgado said. “You put up an altar. You put your best out there because just like any guest of honor, any person that you love who’s coming to visit you, you’re going to be at your best.”

The altars people are preparing are colorful and covered with decorations, photographs and electric candles. By Thursday, the room will be filled with around 15 altars, each designed and created by a different person or organization. And on the holiday, the altars will hold offerings of water, salt, various foods and pan de muerto, a type of bread made for Día de los Muertos. 

The celebration in Anchorage starts with a ceremony outside the gallery when co-organizer Zagal calls to the four winds and calls to welcome ancestors. She burns copal, a fragrant tree resin and her 10-year-old son plays a caracol seashell instrument, which he first started to learn to play when he was 3 years old. Lights on the altars will also help guide the dead to the celebration.

A person with short hair in a green sweater arranges paper marigold flowers on their altar for Día de los Muertos.
Oliviah Franke arranges paper mairgolds around their ofrenda for Día de los Muertos. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

This was the first year Oliviah Franke was making a public altar with an offering or ofrenda

“We have the three layers, the three tiers of the ofrenda,” Franke said.We’ve got red and orange tissue paper flowers decorating it. We’re using battery-powered candles. And then we’ve got a calavera, the sugar skull, block print we made and we put that up. ”

This altar was created in memory of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people and it’s through Franke’s work with Native movement as a community education coordinator. 

At home, Franke’s been celebrating for the past five years; it’s been part of how they’ve been connecting to their Mexican heritage. They were adopted as a child into a Guatemalan and American family but they always knew they had ancestral connections to Mexico. 

“It’s been such a journey to feel really secure in my identities and so, having a tradition that I know I will be grounded in each year has been a part of claiming that identity and being more confident in that for myself, and finding community,” Franke said. “Alaska feels very far away from Mexico and my roots.”

Zagal helps organize the annual event and she said she treasures the cultural connection of celebrating Día de los Muertos in Anchorage. 

A close up of a skeleton toy with traditional Mexican attire for Día de los Muertos on an altar.
Indra Arriaga Delgado decorates her ofrenda with skeletons, as they are seen as a promise of resurrection, not as a symbol of death. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

“I see Día de los Muertos as a place to create a cultural resistance,” Zagal said. “For a community, it’s a place where the children of the community, and the new generations that are born here and are growing here can have a closer experience to the roots, where they come from.”

She said the event has been really important for cultural healing too. 

“Especially in an environment where being Mexican, being Latin American, or being from Guatemala, El Salvador — we went through a hard time, during previous years,” Zagal said. “This was our way to create a place to connect to identity.”

But the event is also open to the entire community in Anchorage; people are invited to create altars and visit the gallery, no matter their heritage. 

Founder and organizer Delgado has seen how significant the event has been for people over the past 19 years, especially for those processing death. 

“One of the reasons that we have Día de muertos in the way that we have it is because it’s open. And you don’t have to be Latina. You don’t have to be Mexican. You don’t have to be Indigenous, because it’s something that we all share,” Delgado said. “It creates a space for somebody to come when they need it… It’s part of healing.”

Delgado grew up celebrating Día de los Muertos and she said it’s shaped the way she understands death. 

“As my grandmother died as my father died…  it takes on a different meaning. Because they’re here,” Delgado said. “It makes me not afraid of death. That doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid of dying. I think everybody’s afraid of dying. But I understand it. I understand that it’s natural. It’s good. It’s important to go back in to the earth and become part of memory.”

And Delgado said it influences her approaches to the material world. 

“We have a saying, ‘There is more time than life.’ And for me, the values that come with Día de los Muertos make it so that I understand that I am impermanent in this plane. And so I can’t hold onto things that nobody possesses,” Delgado said.

But for as long as she’s still in the material world, Delgado will put up altars every year: the water, the salt, the flowers, the pan de muerto and the light that guides the dead to the celebration. And she and the other organizers invite Alaska to join. 

For those who want to join the celebration in Anchorage, the opening ceremony starts at 6pm followed by visits to altars, music, and food. It’s at Out North Gallery, 411 D Street.

RELATED: Alaska Native youth preserve traditions by preserving traditional food at Elders and Youth Conference

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at rcassandra@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Rachel here.

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