What do you think of when someone mentions Halloween? Here in the states, it typically means haunted houses, costumed parties, scary movies, and of course, pumpkin spice everything. It’s a chance to explore horror, a time to be silly (or sexy), and above all, it’s a small break from reality. But not all things October are escapist or ghoulish, Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead for those who failed Spanish 101—is a cultural celebration that dates back to the Aztecs.
The original Day of the Dead celebrations took place in the beginning of summer, and eventually moved to coincide with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Families and friends would prepare a picnic to eat at the graves of their loved ones as they shared memories to keep the spirits of those now gone alive. The mood was celebratory, stemming from cultural beliefs that the dead would not approve of mourning.
This celebration is something Leticia Vazquez-Smith, president of Latino Arts for Humanity in Columbus, holds close to her heart, as she grew up in Mexico City. Those memories stuck with her when she moved to Ohio in 1999 and became the basis for how she began celebrating here in the States. It started in her apartment where she was asked to give a presentation on something she loved. Naturally, she picked Day of the Dead. With a full heart, she did things such as making traditional dishes like tamales for the community members looking to stop by.
“I wanted to share the roots of the real thing,” Vazquez- Smith explained.
But, that was 20 years ago. Now, the crowd is too large for her home and she and Latino Arts for Humanity have partnered with Green Lawn Cemetery for a Day of the Dead celebration with authentic Mexican food, calaveritas (sugar skulls) poem readings, and music, and dancing from Latino community members in Columbus.
What started as a passion has blossomed into a citywide event where more than 2,000 people will show up, pay respects, and experience a cultural happening that might be difficult to find in a state more than 2,000 miles away from its origin.
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The Columbus Day of the Dead celebration will be on Oct. 19, and will include traditional food trucks, music and dancers, art vendors, and educational courses for children. Each year’s celebration offers a new theme for visitors, and this year will focus on the ocean. In keeping with the celebration of life, the entire day has been “greened”—from vendors avoiding single-use plastic items to educational conversations about pollution.
Vazquez-Smith said in the years past, the event had been held out of almost anywhere they could find, such as galleries in the Short North or warehouses around town. But once she and her team discovered Green Lawn Cemetery hosted outdoor movie screenings, an idea was planted. They wondered if the cemetery would be interested in hosting a Day of the Dead celebration and Green Lawn happily obliged.
“When Green Lawn was founded, it was meant to be in-part green space for the city; in-part a place where people could come out, walk the trails, and have picnics. It was meant to be more than a place to bury your dad, but also come out and celebrate and remember their ancestors,” said Randy Rogers, president of the Green Lawn Cemetery Association.
This idea of celebrating ancestors, having picnics, and all the steps in between parallels nicely with Day of the Dead. And for Rogers, inclusivity is something he finds very important as Green Lawn Cemetery is a space that has grown with the community around it. Green Lawn is without many regulations for burial sites and markers, which allows different groups to express their cultural beliefs, even in death. A partnership with Latino Arts for Humanity for a Day of the Dead celebration seemed to be the perfect expression of that philosophy.
“I always equate it with the writings of Dante, Dante’s epic poem, ‘La Vita Nuova.’ He’s writing about his new life after the death of his love,” Rogers explained. “As he tells that story, he also talks about her new life in the afterlife and that carries through as he encounters her again in The Inferno. And that’s kind of like Day of the Dead because you’re celebrating the lives of your ancestors after they passed— you’re celebrating their new life in the afterlife.”
This theme of inclusivity runs deeper. Vazquez-Smith said this year she expects a wide variety of cultures to attend ranging from African-American communities to Midwesterners who grew up right here their entire lives. For the Mexico City native, this is exactly what she had hoped for.
“Day of the Dead shouldn’t be an only Mexican tradition. We’re all going to die, that’s a fact. If you have time to do a little grieving, sharing your food with your family, it’s something the society here doesn’t have. They don’t have that day to be free to talk to the people who are not here body wise,” Vazquez-Smith said. “Everything is about the thought of living and dying. Any kind of culture that wants to come and do something with us, they are welcome. It’s for everybody.”
Green Lawn Cemetery is located on 1000 Green Lawn Avenue. The Day of the Dead event will take place on Oct. 18 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.