Celebrating the dearly departed
Chuck Stinnett Special to Henderson Gleaner USA TODAY NETWORK
Wander into Henderson’s Central Park on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 2, and you are likely to see dozens or more figures sauntering about, their bodies adorned in beautiful clothes.
And their faces? They will be holloweyed skulls, although many of them could be fabulously decorated.
You might also see families picnicking contentedly in a makeshift graveyard or spy an eight-foot-tall skeleton sculpture. There will even be a 12-foot-wide altar where gifts to the beloved deceased will be left.
This won’t be some Halloween hangover or the zombie apocalypse.
It will be Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead. And it’s very much a family affair.
The public observance of the annual Mexican holiday, the first of its kind here,
See CELEBRATING, Page 9A
GETTY IMAGES Abraham Brown, left, director of Hispanic outreach and ministry at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, and Henderson County Judge-executive Brad Schneider show off a couple of the “tombstones” that will be set up for a celebration of the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday.
PHOTO BY CHUCK STINNETT
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will certainly be a visual spectacle. But its intent extends beyond that — to serve as an extension of friendship by Henderson to its Hispanic residents.
“I’ve been thinking about this for some time,” Henderson County Judgeexecutive Brad Schneider said. “Growing up in Tucson, (I saw that) it was a common holiday for Mexican people.”
He began brainstorming with Abraham Brown, his Mexican-American friend who is director of Hispanic outreach and ministry at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, where about 300 Latino families worship.
“There are over 1,200 Hispanics in the county that we know of” — many of them working in construction, at Tyson Foods or at the various Mexican restaurants here — “and there are just as many in Webster County, especially in Sebree, but you hardly ever see them,” Schneider said.
“We don’t mix much, but they’re a significant part of our workforce now,” he said. “You don’t see them getting in trouble. They’re hard-working, good people. It struck me that they’re not being integrated into the fabric of Henderson County.”
Schneider conceived of staging a Día de los Muertos observance as an outreach “to let them know they’re part of us, and they’re not going anywhere. I want to embrace that community.”
He and Brown began meeting in April. “He immediately said, ‘That would be fantastic,’ ” Schneider said.
“It’s a way to celebrate the culture,” Brown said. “Latinos respect four pillars of life: family, language, culture and music. Day of the Dead connects all four pillars of Latino culture.”
The free Nov. 2 event will feature music, dancing, food, costumes and expressions of love for deceased loved ones from 4 to 7 p.m. in Central Park.
“Why Central Park?” Schneider asked rhetorically. “It’s the heart of Henderson. We want to let them know they’re welcome here. Abraham and I envision it as a huge group hug.”
“I think it’s really good,” said Angelica Medina, who own’s Medina’s Mexican restaurant at Washington and Meadow streets with her husband, Misael. “It will make (Hispanic) people feel more free to participate in events, feel more welcome even though they’ve been here a couple of years.”
“I’ve asked around, and everybody seems to be excited,” she said.
While there has been outreach to encourage Hispanic residents to turn out for the event, “I think we’ll get a huge number of locals,” Schneider said.
There has been some pushback on social media. Some wonder why a small American city would want to embrace a Mexican holiday.
Schneider noted that Americans cheerfully embrace holidays from a variety of cultures: The St. Patrick’s Day (Irish), Octoberfest (German), the multicultural Mardis Gras — and Cinco de Mayo (the Fifth of May), an observance of the Mexican Army’s defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 that is more widely celebrated in the United States (through enthusiastic consumption of tequila and guacamole) than in Mexico itself.
Others fear that embracing Day of the Dead is dabbling with Satanic worship.
Brown insists that is far from the truth. The holiday coincides closely with All Saints’ Day — a Christian celebration of deceased saints, including family members, that is observed in the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches. (Officially, All Saints Day falls on Nov. 1, although some congregations might observe it on the following Sunday.) Día de los Muertos “is a celebration of life” and a way to honor loved ones who have died, he said.
“It’s a celebration of your loved ones and a celebration of their life,” Brown said.
At the Altar of the Dead, people will likely bring gifts to their departed loved ones. “Like, if my granddad loved chocolate, I’ll bring a chocolate bar,” he said. “Or a favorite baseball cap. It’s a way of saying, ‘We still respect you and celebrate you.’ ” “It’s very much a party celebrating family heritage,” Schneider said. “It’s very family-friendly, kid-friendly.”
“It will be vibrant,” Brown said. “People will be laughing; it will not be solemn.”
“It’s amazing, bringing the diversity of Hispanic culture to town,” Marcos Nicolas, owner of the two Tacoholics restaurants in Henderson and the ChimiTruck food truck, said. “I think it will be a really good experience for Henderson to see.”
If Day of the Dead is not yet widely understood in Henderson, it certainly is appreciated by Corporate America.
Disney in 2007 released “Coco,” an animated feature film inspired by the Mexican holiday — and in September, Mattel unveiled a costumed Day of the Dead Barbie Doll. The 2015 Britishmade James Bond film “Spectre” begins with a spectacular Día de los Muertos parade in Mexico City.
Day of the Dead merchandise can be found at retailers ranging from Walgreen’s to Cracker Barrel, although it might be confused with Halloween costumes or decorations. But there is a distinction.
“This is not Mexican Halloween,” Schneider said. “It isn’t trivial. But it should be fun.
“It will begin with lots of arts and crafts,” he said. There will also be picnicking, lounging in bag chairs and dining from food trucks. A Mariachi band will perform, and folkloric dancers will perform in fantastic costumes. Nicolas will operate a Mexican-style beer garden on county ground in front of the courthouse.
Some food trucks will be serving what Brown said will be “very authentic Latino food” along with pan de muerto — bread of the dead, a sweet baked good that Mexicans eat at gravesites during the celebration.
“The spirit of it is, your deceased relatives are there with you” — summoned in part by the distinctive aroma of marigolds — “and have probably come a long way and they’re hungry,” he said.
“It’s a great opportunity for Latinos to tell our story in celebratory form — to enjoy eating some nice food and enjoy some good dancing,” Brown said.
Face painting will be available — if you want to don a whimsical and highly decorated skull mask, you can — and folks will be able to decorate sugar skulls.
The Henderson observance is getting a big boost with the help of the Montessori Academy of Evansville, which has hosted its own Day of the Dead observances in recent years. Eric Ridenour, an artist and Montessori teacher, organized those events, and he’ll be helping Henderson by loaning some art pieces as well as organizing a sort of facepainting assembly line and the sugar skull painting.
A group of Hispanic ladies from Holy Name, meanwhile, is preparing the altar for the event.
Attendees are encouraged to dress in colorful costumes, including dressing as La Catrina — the beautifully dressed high-society woman in a flowing hat who happens also to be dead, with a painted skull for a face.
In Mexico, a tradition on Día de los Muertos is for family and friends to decorate graves of loved ones with flowers, candles, candy, bread and drinks. In Central Park, folks will have the option to reserve five-by-eight-foot gravesites in a faux graveyard complete with a cardboard tombstone on which they can write the name of a departed family member and picnic there. Fifty gravesites will be available; they can be reserved by calling Angelica Medina at 224-425-1945. They are free, but available on a first-come, first served basis.
“When we go to the gravesites, it’s a celebration” of the departed, Brown said. “We’re celebrating them.”
A highlight of the celebration will be a candlelight procession. “It will be more solemn,” Schneider said.
“Everyone is welcome to bring a photo of a loved one” to carry in the procession, Brown said.
While Schneider said city and county parks departments “have really been helpful” in planning for the event, he emphasized that the celebration “is privately funded, with no public money.”
Promotional assistance has also been provided by the Henderson County Tourist Commission and the Downtown Henderson Partnership.
“Mexican folks” — Brown along with restaurant owners Nicolas and the Medinas — “are teaching us a lot,” tourism director Abby Dixon said. “We’ve really enjoyed learning more than anything.”
“From a tourism perspective, it’s just really wonderful to be able to offer new things for visitors,” Dixon said. “Hopefully be a draw for this whole region.”
“The Downtown Henderson Partnership is very excited about this event, especially because it will bring such diversity to downtown and educate all of us on how different cultures celebrate their holidays,” DHP Executive Director Lindsay Locasto said.
Foremost among the organizers is to be true to the tradition.
“We want to make it authentic so we want to be very respectful,” Brown said.
“We’ll consider it a success if Hispanic families find it authentic and welcoming,” Schneider said.
“They’re excited,” Nicolas said. “I talked to a few of them at the Holy Name Fall Festival. They’re all excited about it to see what it can grow into.”
“If this is successful and we think people like it,” Schneider said, “we’ll do it again next year.”
Logo for Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos FURNISHED