Four women whose faces were painted as skulls sang in unison in the middle of Walker Square Park surrounded by a crowd on a cold Saturday afternoon. Dressed brightly colored dresses and flower crowns, they burned copal (a type of incense) meant to cleanse and invite spirits into the space.
The women — members of the Strawberry Moon Women Singers, a Wisconsin-based hand drum group — were performing for the traditional Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The songs were passed down to them from their ancestors.
Every year Milwaukee hosts a large celebration of the holiday. Hundreds of people braved the nearly freezing temperatures to attend Día de los Muertos Milwaukee. The annual festival included a 5K race, a Vigil for Peace and a parade, in addition to food and art vendors.
Celeste Contreras explained that she and her family began with a small Dia de los Muertos parade eight years ago to celebrate the lives of loved ones who have died, and it slowly evolved into the large festival that it is today, with music, art, dance and food.
“We’re not dwelling on the death; we’re celebrating the life of the people that have passed,” Contreras said.
The holiday is traditionally Latin American, but has ancient roots from pre-Colombian times, Contreras added. Dia de los Muertos officially begins on Oct. 31 and lasts until Nov. 2, but celebrations can take place the whole week. Celebrants will paint their faces as skulls, gather in cemeteries, create memorials and throw parties to remember the lives of dead loved ones.
“We welcome everyone to unite today with all of our ancestors and all of our death rituals, and Milwaukee is so segregated that one thing we can unite in is death,” Contreras said.
People remembered their loved ones by writing their names on the sidewalk in chalk. Families commemorated the act by taking pictures next to the names.
The Vigil for Peace began with members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin holding signs with photos of young people who died by suicide over the past year due to bullying. Students from Milwaukee area high schools painted cardboard coffins.
“I just want to ask us to remember how important it is for us to be community, to look past, to acknowledge, to accept our differences and protect one another,” said Emilio de Torre, director of Youth and Programs at the ACLU of Wisconsin.
Approximately 30 people participated in the short parade around Walker’s Point. ACLU members walked with the coffins and signs, while Contreras led the group. A saxophonist played throughout the parade.
After the parade people could watch Aztec dancers perform in traditional costumes, listen to live music and visit vendors, including Lopez Bakery and Restaurant, Artery Ink and Jamaican Kitchen Food Truck.
Local artist Ceci Tejada was selling papier-mâché crafts that included jewelry and calaveras, a representation of a human skull used as a symbol of Dia de los Muertos.
“I am a papier-mâché sculptor, but I also work with plaster,” said Tejada. “I made all the artwork here. As you can see, I really love calaveras.”
Contreras said she was pleased with the turnout and plans to continue Dia de los Muertos Milwaukee for years to come.
“We’ll be dancing to keep warm because it’s really cold today, but it’s amazing people really show up even if it’s cold or raining,” she said.