Celebrating the honored dead

Longmont’s 22-year-old Dia de los Muertos celebration continues

Painting by Jaime Chihuan

Elaborately painted sugar skulls rest beside photos, flanked by candles, a cross and flowers — an ofrenda, a memorial to the dead, honoring them with religious sacrament and artifacts representative of their life.

The ofrenda is part of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Though the festival shares Catholic roots with Halloween, along with an abundance of skeletons, the two holidays differ in intent.

“There are so many similar holidays around the world where death is recognized and celebrated. People tend to think Day of the Dead is Mexican Halloween, but it’s not,” says Anne Macca, curator of education at the Longmont Museum. “On Halloween you dress up to scare off spirits, but on Day of the Dead you’re welcoming back your loved ones.”

Longmont’s Day of the Dead celebration started in 2000, a collaboration between the museum and Latino social justice nonprofit El Comite. Since then, the festivities have grown to encompass an exhibition of ofrendas at the museum, gallery showings of catrina paintings at the Firehouse Art Center, and a street festival to kick off the month.

From Oct. 8 to Nov. 6, both the Firehouse Art Center and Longmont Museum will host exhibitions honoring Latin American culture and art from the Longmont community. Ofrendas will fill the Swan Atrium at the museum, including a massive altar by Latino artist Marcelo Fernandez.

“[Fernandez] is doing a gigantar altar within that exhibit, and our community altars will be in the space around it,” Macca says.

Over at the Firehouse, the main gallery will host its sixth year of catrinas, paintings inspired by Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada’s La Calavera Catrina. Though originally intended as social commentary, Posada’s work has since become an iconic part of Dia de los Muertos. 

Local artists from around Boulder County paint their interpretations of La Catrina, some including pieces of jewelry and other materials worked into the painting. The catrinas are then auctioned off after the exhibition, with proceeds going toward funding the art nonprofit’s programming.

“When the tradition started, the paintings were hung in our main gallery for our Dia de Los Muertos exhibit,” says Elaine Waterman, executive director at the Firehouse. “We’re bringing them back to the main gallery, so it’s like they’re coming full circle.”

The work of two Latin American artists will be showcased in the south gallery, an exhibition called Escuchame. Jamie Chihuan and Adriana Paolo Palacios Luna bring paintings, prints, fiber arts and film to an immersive exhibit framed around cross-cultural experiences and the complexities of identity in the modern age. Part of the showing will be Chihuan’s documentary, a film examining the Latinx artist community’s relationship with Dia de los Muertos, as well as Chihuan’s own struggle with identity and artistic expression.

“The irony of Latinx artists calling out how they only get featured during Dia de los Muertos isn’t lost on us,” Waterman says. “That’s why we decided to give our (South Gallery) artists free reign and not have their exhibit centered on the holiday.”

Chihuan, whose paintings are full of skeletons in red cloaks and other death iconography, made the film for a documentary class last year. 

“I interviewed Latino artists all around Colorado and how they feel like they’re being used for Day of the Dead specifically,” Chihuan explains. “It feels like we’re only being called upon to show our work this time of year, or when you have other gentrified Hispanic holidays like Cinco de Mayo.”

Through the interviews with the art community, Chihuan found a mixed reaction. Some were grateful for the work, others less positive. Chihuan also found that predominantly white-owned galleries would exploit artists of other ethnicities to feature art during cultural-specific holidays.

“It’s not just Hispanics either,” Chihuan says. “I did more research and found out that African Americans and Asians are targeted too, all just to seem inclusive.” 

Chihuan says when he first started making his own artwork, the death symbols present had no connection to Day of the Dead. The celebration wasn’t a big part of his upbringing, he explains, but people saw a Mexican artist with skeletons and just made the assumption for him.

“It feels very tokenizing and that’s kind of why I made the documentary. I wanted to show people how we feel about it,” he says. “I’m excited for people to see it, and for the opportunity to show people coming to see Day of the Dead that they don’t have to tokenize the art.”