Día de los Muertos Event Honors Family, Tradition

The Latin Art Organization of Arkansas will host a community celebration Nov. 6.

women dressed as catrinas for Día de Los Muertos
Members of the Latin Art Organization of Arkansas celebrate Día de Los Muertos in November 2020. Photo courtesy of LAOA.

Silvia Merino lost her father five years ago, but her family keeps his memory alive. Every Día de los Muertos, Merino honors him by creating an ofrenda (altar) full of his favorite things — meatballs, tequila, whiskey and cigarettes. 

“It’s like having someone in your house that is going to be joining you, and you just want them to feel welcome to your house,” she says.  

Merino is the event director for the Latin Art Organization of Arkansas, a nonprofit that has created a community ofrenda at Shiloh Square in downtown Springdale. Local residents are welcome to bring items to the ofrenda to honor their loved ones through Nov. 6 when the nonprofit will host a community celebration. 

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, originated in Mexico and is celebrated Nov. 1-2. When a family member dies, it’s believed they are alive in a different place, and each November, they can visit the land of the living, Merino says. Children can cross on the first day and adults on the second.

“Our belief is that God allows them to at least visit us once a year and it’s that day,” she says.

Before he passed, Merino’s father would often hire mariachis or a band to come with his family to the cemetery where they would celebrate beside their relatives’ tombs and eat food together. Merino was raised in Mexico City and when she came to the United States, she realized the way the two cultures approach death “is completely different.” Honoring the dead can be very somber in the U.S., while in Mexico, “it’s a party for us,” she says.

“Of course it’s sad because you are not going to see them for a period of time, but that’s how we think, it’s a period of time,” Merino says. “We are going to get together at some point and I’ll meet you there. That’s how we feel.”

The Latin Art Organization of Arkansas has planned a big party for its annual Día de los Muertos event Saturday. Each of Mexico’s 32 states has its own style of dress and food, and the organization’s members will be wearing traditional clothing this weekend. They’ll also paint their faces and parade around downtown as catrinas — well-dressed skeletons — an iconic symbol of the holiday.

The Procesión de Catrinas begins at noon and there will be cash prizes for the three catrinas with the most votes. Registration for the contest is preferred. The celebration continues after the parade and will feature food, crafts and performances by groups like Mariachi Joya Azteca, Ballet Folklorico Herencia de Mexico and Ballet Folklorico Sol Azteca.

Hosting these types of celebrations is key for helping families in the U.S. maintain connections to their Mexican heritage and teaching kids about their roots, Merino says.

“I think it’s very important that even if they were born in the U.S. they need to know where they are coming from and they need to be excited and proud of it because it is a blessing being born where we were born,” she says.

While the event is a celebration of Mexican culture, it’s a community event and everyone is welcome. Merino and her fellow organizers are expecting more than 1,200 people to attend this year. 

“We are going to open the arms for everybody, that’s how Mexicans are,” she says. “We like to drink and sing and hug everybody, so that’s how people should be — just be open. Every once in a while you need to be the minority.”

The Latin Art Organization of Arkansas will host its Día de los Muertos Celebration from 12 to 7 p.m. Nov. 6 at Shiloh Square in downtown Springdale. Admission is free and more information is available on the group’s Facebook page.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.