Austin Celebrates Life and Death Through Viva La Vida Fest

A papier-mâché skeleton adorned in paper marigolds looms over festival attendees at the Viva la Vida festival on October 18th. Photo by Olivia Starich.

A papier-mâché skeleton adorned in paper marigolds looms over festival attendees at the Viva la Vida festival on October 18th. Photo by Olivia Starich.

By Jane Claire Hervey, Olivia Starich, Elizabeth Williams and Alex Vickery

In a sea of papier-mâché, face paint and elaborate costumes, Austin’s 31st annual Viva la Vida festival kicked off the city’s series of Dia de los Muertos celebrations.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican holiday during which people remember and honor loved ones who have died. Because of Texas’ close proximity to the Mexican border and the state’s influx of Mexican immigrants, the holiday has grown to reach communities far beyond its origins.

Austin’s Day of the Dead events typically begin in mid-October (to accommodate the city’s hectic event schedule) and extend into November. Sylvia Orozco, the executive director of the Mexic-Arte Museum and one of Viva La Vida Fest’s founders, said that Austin’s Dia de los Muertos events offer a cultural interpretation of the holiday.

“It was actually a very traditional, authentic event, and I kind of just fell in love with it,” Orozco said.“I thought it was beautiful. So when we came back to Austin [from Mexico City], and we wanted to start a cultural organization, that was the first event that we organized to do.”

Viva La Vida Fest, which began in 1984, begins with a procession through downtown that includes dancers in paper maché masks, 10-foot-tall puppets and parade-goers in full skeletal makeup. The parade honors a special theme or component each year. This year’s theme paid tribute to deceased soccer players in honor of the World Cup. Orozco said the procession themes give the festival a unique Austin flavor.

“Because of the creativeness of the city and people liking parades and processions and kind of dressing up, I think it becomes extra special,” Orozco said. “Each year, we have a special component, so we actually contribute to the creativeness of the Austin celebration with the procession.”

Austin Celebrates Dia de los Muertos from Alex Vickery on Vimeo.

Although the holiday is often mistaken for Halloween by those unfamiliar with its background, the festival is much more than music and skeleton costumes. At Viva La Vida Fest, festival attendees celebrate those who have died and the idea that death is just another phase of life. Lynette Lor, a festival attendee, said she has celebrated Dia de los Muertos in Austin since her childhood.

“Dia de los Muertos means, to me, remembering those who have passed away and keeping their spirit here with us today,” Lor said.

Orozco said that the Mexic-Arte Museum hosted its first Viva la Vida Fest as a way to bring the beauty of Dia de los Muertos to the city. In addition to the festival and the procession, the Mexic-Arte Museum hosted an exhibit of eight altars this year, which were created by different families and organizations in the community.

From the colorful parade to the Mexican food, Viva La Vida Fest pays homage to the original meaning of Dia de los Muertos, but many of the celebration’s events are fundamentally different. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos occurs on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. The first day, Dia de los Angelitos, is for remembering children and infants who have died while the second day is for remembering older loved ones. Families create altars inside the home or in cemeteries and decorate them with photos of the person and offerings, such as the person’s favorite candy, liquor or a package of cigarettes.

Symbols of the holiday include: calaveritas, candied skulls made of either sugar or clay; marigolds, the traditional flower of the dead; and candles, which are both meant to guide spirits back to Earth with their scent and light. In Mexico, these items are used to decorate altars and graves. These symbols are an important part of Austin’s interpretation of Dia de los Muertos and can be found in the festival’s decorations and floats.

Peter Ward, professor of sociology and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said that Dia de Los Muertos is a peaceful, happy time for its participants. Rather than being a mournful reminder of those who have died, the holiday serves as an opportunity to keep their spirits and memories alive.

“One dies three times in Mexico,” Ward said. “The first is when your soul leaves your body—you actually pass away. The second death is when you’re interred in the ground. And then the third death is when no one remembers you anymore. And that’s a very profound thing.”

For Ward, Austin’s celebration of Dia de los Muertos shares an atypical interpretation of death with Americans. The event imparts Mexico’s positive attitude regarding the loss of life.

“I think this is the big difference some societies have over us in the United States,” Ward said. “We’re not terribly good at cultivating this memory. It’s something we find difficult to do.”

While Austin’s Viva La Vida Fest presents a Dia de los Muertos much different from Mexico’s, Orozco said that the celebrations still expose the community to the traditional spirit and attitude of the holiday.

“It’s more about embracing death than being scared of it,” Orozco said. “It’s still feeling that those family members that you honor and remember are still a part of you and your memory.”

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