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Dia de los Muertos traditions endure in Las Vegas despite pandemic

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos will be different this year in the Las Vegas Valley, without colorful festivals that usually highlight the Latin American tradition, social distancing encouraged for families and friends, and, for some people, perhaps the absence of loved ones who have fallen victim to the coronavirus.

But honoring the 3,000-year Aztec tradition of celebrating ancestors and lost loved ones will be no less meaningful this year, according to those who embrace it.

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on Sunday and Monday this year. For more than a decade, one of the valley’s biggest Dia de los Muertos events has been the Spring Preserve’s celebration, canceled this year because of the pandemic.

“Although we’re not able to host our Día de los Muertos celebration this year as we have in the past, we believe it’s important to continue remembering the spirit of this event that means so much for the community,” Springs Preserve manager Bruno Bowles said in a release.

To that end, it asked folk artist Isaias Urrabazo to create a single ofrenda, or altar, in honor of those killed by COVID-19. It will be the only one displayed this year.

While Urrabazo has made ofrendas for the Spring Preserve’s festival for four years, this one holds special meaning for him. His mother died in June from the virus, and seven other family members were infected.

“Across this nation, we are affected by COVID-19, and there are chairs where family members once sat before at a kitchen table, in the living room,” he said. “And the great thing about the Day of the Dead is actually, we are not mourning, we’re celebrating. So that’s what we want to reflect on, is celebrating our ancestors, our family members’ lives, and all the joy that they brought into our lives and that’s the most important thing.”

Although Urrabazo did not grow up celebrating Dia de los Muertos, four years ago he felt inspired to make an ofrenda as an art installation at Springs Preserve. Researching the holiday and its sacred centuries-old traditions, and making the ofrenda year after year, Urrabazo said he made a personal connection and his own Dia de los Muertos tradition.

“This has brought me closer to a lot of things. It has actually made me look at ‘where do I come from?’” he said. “And so it reminds me of all the sacrifices that my mom actually made … Her story lives on through us. We know how hard she worked. We know how hard our dad worked, and it brings you closer. It gives you a better understanding about who you are as a person.”

Urrabazo said he hopes the ofrenda brings people a sense of community and comfort during times of uncertainty. It will be on display from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and Monday, as well as Thursday through Nov. 8, at the preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd. For information on admission, tickets and more, visit SpringsPreserve.org.

The little things

While Dia de los Muertos has evolved over the years and generations and has transcended borders, it maintains its core elements of connecting the past with the present. It’s well-known for sugar skulls, calavera poetry, colorful art, Cempasuchil flowers (marigolds) and sweet treats, and its message of celebrating life instead of mourning death resonates as strongly as ever.

“I think so often grieving feels heavy. It feels like you get stuck sometimes, stuck in missing people and regretting things and a lot of negative emotions,” said Natalie Gutierrez, a UNLV student majoring in history with a focus in Latin America and East Asia. “And Dia de los Muertos is the complete opposite of that.

“We’re not trying to make a space where we’re regretting, (where) we’re all dwelling in those feelings,” she continued. “It’s more so a space for people to remember to rejoice in life. To open the door that’s not only for your feelings but for your spirit, just as much as other spirits.”

Ofrendas are made for lost loved ones’ souls. These are often decorated with cempasuchil flowers, candles and papel picado, or perforated colorful paper. The altar usually will include photos of the departed loved one, favorite food, fruit, bread, water, soda and/or coffee for the spirit to enjoy while visiting.

“Your ofrenda is a way to bring a loved one a gift, or just give them a place here in this world,” Gutierrez said. “We kind of embrace them, show them your love and the fact that they are still in your memories.”

More folks celebrate at home

Mexican-owned small businesses, including Santos Flowers and La Mexicana Bakery in Las Vegas, make the traditional bread and sell the flowers and folk art that allow the community to continue to celebrate and keep the traditions alive.

With festivals and other events canceled, more families are choosing to create a traditional experience at home.

Santos Flowers, a family-run flower shop that originated in Santa Ana, California, operates a Las Vegas shop on Bonanza Road run by siblings of the Santa Ana shop owner. For the Dia de los Muertos season, Santos Flowers harvests its cempasuchil, or marigolds, in California and brings them to Las Vegas to be sold and distributed to markets including Mariana’s, Cardenas and La Bonita.

“Thousands of cempasuchil flowers come through the shop during this season,” said Flor Santos, who manages the flower shop. “We’re very busy because the festivals are canceled and people want to do their own thing at home.”

Pan de muerto, a soft, sugar-covered sweet bread, is often eaten with champurrado, a corn-based hot chocolate beverage, or soaked in coffee. The dome-shaped bread has a design on top that symbolizes bones. The bread is a sweet treat only made leading up to Dia de los Muertos.

Business was brisk on a recent visit to La Mexicana Bakery, a local, Mexican-owned bakery on Eastern Avenue that makes handmade sweet bread and pastries, including pan de muerto, during the season. The east Las Vegas bakery has brought dough to life for the past 20 years. Head baker Luis Cuevas said it brings him satisfaction when his bread brings others joy.

The tradition holds a certain universal appeal, according to Gutierrez.

“Dia de los Muertos is something that everybody can connect to in some way. We’re always going to remember our loved ones,” Gutierrez said. “And that’s what Dia de los Muertos is; we’re remembering the good times and we’re remembering together.”

Contact Jannelle Calderon at jcalderon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @NewsyJan on Twitter.

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