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PHOENIX (Desert Botanical Garden) – October, for many people, means fall, pumpkin spice everything, the gateway to the holiday season (Happy HalloThanksMas!), and, of course, Halloween. October also brings Día de Muertos, a holiday with roots going back 3,000 years. Celebrated by people of Mexican heritage, Día de Muertos is not a “Mexican version” of Halloween. During Día de Muertos, the souls of the dead are reunited with their loved ones for a day of celebration. It might sound sad, but it’s not. It’s fun, joyful, colorful, and vibrant - a way to honor those who came before us and the legacies they left behind.
“It’s a celebration of life,” said Susan Rubin, a special events coordinator at Desert Botanical Garden. “It’s a time to be remembering passed loved ones with fondness and love and all the happiness that they brought to their lives while they were alive.”
The Garden has hosted a Día de Muertos celebration for years and has reimagined this year’s event with new activities and memorable experiences. Día de Muertos is traditionally celebrated Oct. 31-Nov. 2, but the Garden’s festival is Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 29-30.
One of the highlights is the Mega Community Altar created by Oaxacan artist Rufina Ruiz López. She is well-known for her work with Oaxacan ceramics and for sharing her art with the community. “This altar will be on a scale never before seen at the Garden, accompanied by a ceiling installation of papel picado and a traditional sand painting by artist Jose Hilario Ruiz López,” according to the Garden. The papel picado is a particularly important part of Día de Muertos. The holes of these intricately cut pieces of paper are what allow spirits to travel to us for the reunion. When the delicate paper moves, you’ll know a loved one has arrived.
The Mega Community Altar is an incredible sight to see inside the Garden’s Webster Auditorium in the Webster Center on the Desert Discovery Loop Trail. (If you want to take the short route, go right at the fork.)
Rufina Ruiz López also created the pieces for the Garden’s entryway arch. It’s 13 feet wide and nearly 12 feet tall, with more than 200 handmade sugar skulls and thousands of paper flowers.
While the Garden’s Día de Muertos festival is only Oct. 29-30, you can see the altar and arch through Sunday, Nov. 6.
Once you pass through the arch and make your way into the Garden, you’ll find something amazing at every turn on every trail. It’s a Garden-wide party.
Naturally, there will be live music (including mariachis), traditional dance performances, and storytelling. Día de Muertos is a celebration, after all! You’ll also enjoy strolling through the mercado, featuring the work of Mexican artists. There’s a little bit of everything – Mexican textiles, décor, hand-embroidered pieces, handmade jewelry, shrine boxes (cajitas), folk art, and wearables.
You and your family will have the chance to create some art of your own by decorating a sugar skull or creating a Frida Crown. One of the many things artist and icon Frida Kahlo was known for is her flower crowns.
“They’re a crowd favorite,” Rubin said.
The face painters are popular, as well.
You can even paint pre-made alebrijes, which are brightly painted sculptures of fantastic and mythical creatures that are created by hand. No two are the same. The designs are intricate and the colors are stunning. They’re truly marvelous! You also can see how alebrijes are created from scratch. Oaxacan master artisans Efrain Fuentes and Silvia Gomez will be doing a special demonstration for those who buy alebrijes. It’s a unique opportunity to “learn about the ancestral technique, history of the tradition and symbolism in a colorful cultural immersion as you explore the artistic process of the native peoples of Oaxaca,” DBG.org explains. If you paint alebrijes, you’ll need to leave them to dry for about 45 minutes, so plan accordingly.
Shortly before the sun goes down each day, you and your family can join performers in La Procesión, a parade of sorts through the Garden meant to honor loved ones who have died.
If you’ve been to the Garden for Día de Muertos in the past, you’re in for a treat with La Procesión this year.
“It’s a new and unique experience,” Rubin explained. “It’ll be a procession through the Garden with little vignettes that tell the story and history of Día de Muertos from Aztec times.”
We told you this is a very old tradition!
A vibrant Mexican tradition!
There’s so much to see and do at the Garden’s Día de Muertos festival, but there’s one performance that Rubin says you must see - Danza Azteca. It’s her favorite part of the event and kicks off the celebration each day.
“If anyone hasn’t experienced Danza Azteca, it’s a really amazing spiritual event that’s a circular dance,” Rubin explained. Spiritual, but not religious.
“Whenever I hear the drums of the Danza Azteca, I’m like, ‘OK, I just need to take a moment and experience where I am and what’s going on,’” she continued. “It’s just a beautiful event that we feel like is a really great way to set a wonderful tone.”
Día de Muertos is included with regular Garden admission, but there is a small fee for some of the activities like making Frida Crowns and decorating sugar skulls. Tickets need to be purchased in advance online at DBG.org.