During the early fall in San Juan Bautista, El Teatro Campesino is usually bursting with music, arts, crafts, dance and street theater as the troupe joins with the community in preparing for the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration and parade.
Celebrated on Nov. 1-2, this Mexican tradition honors the dead with symbols, rituals and activities that trace their history to before the arrival of the Europeans. This year, because of the pandemic, everything is more low key, as three of the traditional activities are being taught online for the first time.
“I did not want to lose contact with the kids who have been part of our Dia de los Muertos programs over the last five years,” said Cristal Gonzalez Avila, longtime producer, director, and instructor with El Teatro who also led a series of Dia de los Muertos workshops last year. “So we adapted some of the lessons and made them available to the children and their families.”
The program started on Sept. 29, with a three-part story circle workshop.
“We had about 20 kids sign up,” said Gonzalez Avila, “with some joining individually and some with their families, which was beautiful. The goal was to come up with stories to share about their ancestors which we will be incorporating into a new play called ‘La Corrida de los Muertos.’ These story circles are going to inform some of the locations, situations and characters to show the heart of these loved ones. We want their legacies and their stories to be told.”
The week of Oct. 5 brought forth a more hands-on project, also taught by Gonzalez Avila. Participants were given a list of supplies needed to build a small ofrenda, or altar, using a shoebox and items found around the house. The three lessons from this workshop can be found on El Teatro’s website, along with the list of supplies needed to finish the project.
“The altar is a way of celebrating the lives of those we have lost,” said Lopez, “not to be sad, but to remember them. It is a belief that they come back to visit us and we want them to know when they visit that we remember them, especially that day.”
Altars can be constructed in one, three, or seven levels, and while there are variations in the designs, certain elements need to be represented.
“You need a picture of the loved one,” said Lopez, “so they will recognize themselves and know the altar is for them. You need papel picado (Mexican cut-out paper) to represent the fragility of life. You should have salt so they can cleanse their spirit and food and drink to refresh them after their journey back. You should have marigolds because the smell will attract them. And you should have things that they loved while they were alive there as well. There are 15 different things you should have for your altar if you want to go by the book, but the most important thing is to celebrate it.”
“I have been a cultural activist and I love to promote other cultures, particularly Mexico and Guatemala,” Lopez said. “The more I learned about it the more I got involved. I love the idea that you can put your all into creating a beautiful altar to welcome those who have left us.”
Limitations imposed by COVID-19 have caused changes in the way El Teatro Campesino promotes art in the community, but have also created opportunities.
“We hope to expand our reach,” said Christy Sandoval, El Teatro’s managing director. “Last year was the first one where we offered a community altar making workshop. Moving online offers us a wider audience who can take part and learn the traditions, hopefully making an altar at home. But we do want to also get back to directly engaging with people as soon as we can.”
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