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.
Dancers and attendees march through downtown Austin during the Mexic-Arte Musem's Viva la Vida parade on October 18th. The festival was one of many Dia de los Muertos celebrations around the city. Photo by Alex Vickery. Editing by Olivia Starich.
Dancers from Danza Azteca Guadalupana parade through downtown on their way to the Viva la Vida festival's stage. The group has dancers of all ages and sexes and they perform throughout the year. Photo by Alex Vickery. Editing by Olivia Starich.
Jim Turpin, an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin, marched in the parade with his wife. The two are both active in raising awareness about atrocities faced in immigration prisons. His scrub reads: Immigration Prisoner. Without justice. Without rights. Without freedom. Photo by Olivia Starich.
A dancer from Danza Azteca Guadalupana carries a Mexican flag and a deer antler through the streets of downtown Austin during the during the Mexic-Arte Musem's Viva la Vida parade on October 18th. The antler is a symbolic prop used in traditional Aztec dances. Photo by Olivia Starich.
Dancers in mariachi dance dresses stroll through downtown during the Mexic-Arte Museum's Viva la Vida parade on October 18th. The dancers' face paint reproduces the popular imagery of "sugar skulls" or the "calavera" (Spanish for "skull"), which are sugar moldings of human skulls made to celebrate the dead. Photo by Alex Vickery. Editing by Olivia Starich.
A member of the Peruvian dance group Ballet Folklórico Te Amo Peru leads the dance group through the streets of Downtown Austin. The dancer led those behind him in a traditional step dance as they moved through town. Photo by Olivia Starich.
A young girl sneaks bites of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich under her mask at the Viva la Vida festival on October 18th. Festival attendees of all ages enjoyed a sunny Saturday afternoon celebrating Dia de los Muertos in downtown Austin. Photo by Alex Vickery. Editing by Olivia Starich.
Two festival attendees who marched in the parade snap a picture of themselves. A booth at the festival offered calavera-style face paint to attendees Photo by Alex Vickery. Editing by Olivia Starich.
A woman poses during the 'Catrina' category of the costume contest, which had three additional categories: Chihuahua, Frida and "Weird". The "Calavera Catrina" is a highly-recognized image of a feminine skeleton usually dressed in aristocratic attire, and she is commonly associated with Dia de los Muertos. Photo by Olivia Starich.
A papier-mâché skeleton holds an upright bass in the Viva la Vida festival's skeleton band. Elaborate flowers, skeletons and other flourishes were arranged around the festival's perimeter, and included a large section of altars filled with paper marigolds. Photo by Olivia Starich.
Danza Azteca Guadalupana performs during the Viva la Vida festival on October 18th. The dance group, which is composed of mainly high school students, practices year-round and is especially busy during the fall. Photo by Olivia Starich.
Francisco Flores, one of the oldest dancers in Danza Azteca Guadalupana, poses holding his calavera staff. The groups' costumes are tailored to each dancer and replicate ceremonial clothing worn by the Aztecs and their descendants in Mexico. Photo by Olivia Starich.
A dancer from Danza Azteca Guadalupana prances through the crowd with a Mexican flag and an antler during one of the group's performances. Antlers are commonly used in traditional Aztecan dance as percussion elements.Photo by Olivia Starich.
Two dancers from Ballet Folklórico Te Amo Peru perform a lighthearted courtship-style dance for onlookers at the Viva la Vida festival. As dancers circled and stepped around each other, the women would occasionally remove their capes, which had "Te Amo Peru" embroidered into their undersides. Photo by Olivia Starich.
Dancers from Danza Azteca Guadalupana step in time in a large circle surrounded by onlookers. Most dancers wore sandals so as to be historically-accurate; however, socks, ace bandages and band aids were seen under much of the footwear, likely as an effort to avoid blistering during long periods of aerobic dancing. Photo by Olivia Starich.
A man from Danza Azteca Guadalupana gazes through a menacing mask to sight in on a crowd member as he completes a series of rapid turns and jumps. Photo by Olivia Starich.
The intricate steps executed during most of the traditional dances require intense concentration, shown here by a dancer from Danza Azteca Guadalupana. The dancers move to the beat of a fast-paced drum and execute a highly-specific set of steps for each different dance. Photo by Olivia Starich.
“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.
This altar celebrates the life of Sam Z. Coronado, one of the Mexic-Arte Museum's co-founders and a prominent Austin artist. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
The Tejano Genealogy Society of Austin dedicated this altar to their female ancestors and Beatriz Quintanilla, a Tejana that many Tejanos trace their lineage back to. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
Artist Sam Coronado's art projects live on through the Serie Project and the Coronado Studio. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
This altar was created by Julia Lopez to honor her mother-in-law, Monica Treviño Lopez. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
A calavera de azucar, or sugar skull, decorates the Hospice Austin altar. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
The Tejano Genealogy Society of Austin researches the genealogy of their members as well as educate the public about the contributions and history of Tejanos. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
The Kajimura family, who created this alter, wrote that their parents Elsie and George "overcame differences in culture in an age where most did not have the courage to try." Photo by Elizabeth Williams
This altar honors Elsie and George Kajimura, who met during World War II. The altar also honors Japanese Americans were interned during the war. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
Bottles of liquor line the altar as an offering to spirits of those who have passed. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
This altar, representing the traditional Dia de los Muertos altars in Michoacán, Mexico, was created by the Carrango, Ocaña, Mendoza, Ramírez Suárez and Vásquez Sr. José Luis families. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
Ramon Samilpa Sr.'s altar bears items like a Glen Miller record and a rosary, depicting his "Faith, love of music, and his connection with family." Photo by Elizabeth Williams
The Samilpa family created this alter to honor their grandfather, Ramon Samilpa Sr. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
HABLA (Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin) dedicated their altar to Cesar Chavez. Photo by Elizabeth Williams
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.”