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Celeste Contreras is an artist, educator and founder of Milwaukee’s Día de Muertos parade. She reflects on the importance of Día de Muertos in her personal life and in the community.
Días de Muertos is the time of year when I celebrate and give thanks to those who have gone before me. This includes my ancestors, loved ones who have taken their lives and always my grandparents. During this time, I will build a home altar full of photos of friends, grandparents, even pets who have passed on. I also add sculptures from Mexico such as skeleton figures, the mask of life, death and rebirth. I also use a popoxcomitl or copalera to burn traditional medicines such as copal, cedar and sage, candles and food, or flowers like the cempazuchitl (marigold). This altar usually stays up for two months, but I always have one or more altar in my home all year long.
Spiritually I follow the Mexica (pronounced Me-shee-kha) ways, from my mother’s side, meaning I give gratitude to life and death all year long. I have gone through a traditional Mexica naming ceremony and I ask for assistance from my elders to help teach me our traditions of the past. Through ceremony, my art and my research of death ceremonies, this time of year comes quickly every year. I am consciously learning new parts of this ancient death ceremony every year and am able to offer more of myself to my community through these teachings from my abuelas and elders.
This year, I am the artist-in-residence with the Milwaukee Public Library, so with the support of the library we have planned Ofrendas de Mitchell/Offerings of Mitchell. Ofrendas de Mitchell is focused on the offerings we give to the altar for the Days of the Dead. We will have three weeks of celebration, and so far, we have held two free community workshops.
The first one focused on screen printing and the importance of print and the history of print from Mexico. We screen printed three original designs I created in honor of traditional offerings we place on the community altar. During the second workshop, we built the community altar, as well as making and eating traditional tamales.
During the third and final week, the community will gather on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at Milwaukee Public Library’s Mitchell Street branch (906 W. Historic Mitchell St.), from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for a celebration and procession. México Indígena will perform a Mexica dance about life and death with world class flautist, Ramiro Duarte. The procession will begin at 6 p.m. Everyone is welcome to join us.
At this point in Milwaukee, I am overly excited to see ALL of the many events happening around the city! I feel a little responsible for this Día de Muertos takeover and I genuinely feel so grateful for this amount of awareness my community is bringing to the surface about our ancient holiday. When I founded Milwaukee’s Day of the Dead Parade in 2009, I honestly never wanted to be the leader of it. I just wanted to show up and then go home, but the work I did — we did — as a community has lead us all to this awakening of our ancestors’ traditions. This will heal our communities because we are taking responsibility for our cultural traditions.
I am so excited, humbled and grateful. Thank you, Milwaukee!