In a small room full of religious books and figurines removed from the main selling floor at Pura Vida Worldly Art in NoDa, you'll find a large shrine with pictures and mementos dedicated to those who have passed away.
Hundreds of faces look out at you. Original photos left by loved ones, newspaper obituary clippings, several yahrzeit memorial candles, prayer beads, a starbucks cup sleeve holding a picture, guitar picks, a baby's bootie, cigarettes, pictures of pets and a sketch drawing of an egg with a message scrawled next to it, "The life I chose not to bring into the world."
To most Americans like myself, the shrine — now a year-round fixture in Pura Vida that began as a staple of the shop's annual celebration of Día de los Muertos — immediately inspires a somber mood, but that's not the point.
"It's been received so beautifully," Teresa Hernandez, owner of Pura Vida, says. "In the beginning, about a decade ago, some people thought it was kind of spooky. But now, I don't know why now, but people just really respect it and find it a very peaceful and very beautiful thing."
Therein lies the contrast between the way many Americans view death and the origins of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated with glee throughout Mexico and in many other Latino cultures with the intent of dedicating a day to the positive remembrance of loved ones who have passed on to heaven, purgatory, Mictlan or woken from the dream state we call life, depending on who you ask.
The holiday can be traced back to the Aztec peoples, and was celebrated near the beginning of summer for many years before the Spanish colonized the area in the 16th century and brought with them the Catholic faith. Over time, the celebrations were transferred to the first and second of November, coinciding with the Catholic All Saints' Day. Nov. 1 is often dedicated to children who have passed, while Nov. 2 encompasses all those who have left the Earth.
Hernandez, who grew up in a rural Mexican village named Santa Anna with no running water or electricity, knows all too well why it was necessary to set a specific day aside for the babies and children.
"Women had their babies at home and many had at least one stillbirth," she says. "So most families, unfortunately, had someone to remember on the 1st."
Today, the holiday is celebrated in different ways — not only can religious beliefs play a key role in how an individual or family celebrates but celebrations have adapted in different ways from town to town through Mexico and now into the United States — but a few staples remain.
In most Mexican towns, the community gathers at their loved ones' graves. Many re-paint the cement gravestones used throughout much of Mexico and almost everyone brings the favorite food of those who have passed as an offering. It is not a short procession, as many families spend the entire day in the cemeteries, congregating with neighbors and telling stories of those who have passed.
Many of those I spoke with reminisced of food trucks, mariachi bands and other features that most Americans would recognize at a summer block party.
"We celebrate those who have passed away by celebrating with what they liked; the food they liked and the music," says Gustavo Leon, a local artist who celebrated Dia de los Muertos while growing up in El Salvador. "We may lay or dance on the grave, and that's not an obscenity, that's a celebration."
In America, cultural taboos are among the many reasons for a shift in how people here celebrate Día de los Muertos. The holiday has become more personal, with people building altars or shrines in their homes to commemorate loved ones or act as a gateway for the souls of the deceased.
I met with local artist Rosalia Torres-Weiner as she worked with friends on an altar she will exhibit during a Dia de los Muertos event at UNC Charlotte Center City on Oct. 30. Her altar is designed to act as a point of return for loved ones during their journey in the afterlife. An arch at the top of the altar is meant as a doorway, which leads down steps (included in any altar) onto a hallway of sorts that Torres-Weiner called a "welcome mat."
While the arch and hallway are specific to her altar, she described some of the must-haves in any Day of the Dead altar. These include flowers (symbolizing Earth), papel picado (a thin paper used to create banners or other art symbolizing wind), candles (fire, of course) and food and drink. Pan de muerto is a type of bread often cooked for the occasion and tequila, beer or any other type of drink can be used as an offering to those who have passed on. Torres-Weiner also emphasized the importance of salt in her altars.
"The salt is important. It helps so they're souls don't get corrupted while they're here for a short time. You can put it in a cross, and that helps them know north from south," she laughs, clearly giddy with excitement for the altar to be finished.
Torres-Weiner was working with three friends to finish the altar, and the group spent the day enjoying life while telling stories of loved ones who have died.
Maria Romero Dietz bounced around the room and joked about the altar, but straightened up when she described the upcoming holiday.
"Now is a time to enjoy each other and tell jokes," she says. "But on Día de los Muertos, I don't joke. It's important that I'm respectful to the dead."
The positivity with which Torres-Weiner and many others approach the day contrasts with how many Americans view death, and it leads to awkward moments. When she mentions her mother passed away this year and she will be celebrating in the States for the first time, I quickly offer my apologies, which she reluctantly accepts.
"This is so funny how you said I'm sorry, but this is something that is going to happen to you and to me," Torres-Weiner says. "Sometimes I wish people would not say, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' because that's the opposite. In Mexico, we don't say, 'Sorry,' we say, 'Ya se nos adelantó,' which is like saying, 'She's ahead of us. She moved on.' Everybody is supposed to be at that point. She already left and we're going to be there, too. It's beautiful."
Torres-Weiner is from Xochimilco, thought of by many to be the birthplace of Día de los Muertos celebrations, and she believes — as the Aztecs did — death is the beginning of the soul's long journey to Mictlan, the Land of the Dead. Hernandez, who is Catholic, incorporates her religion into her celebration, praying a rosary for each of her loved ones who have passed.
For Juan R. Fuentes, a San Francisco artist currently in residency at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, the different ways of celebrating the day only add to the attraction. Fuentes grew up in the Salinas Valley in California and, though his mother always kept an altar in their home, he didn't begin celebrating Día de los Muertos until he moved to the Bay area in the mid-'70s and found a large group who celebrate annually.
Fuentes believes as long as the key tenants of the holiday — gathering with loved ones and remembering the dead — are respected, there should always be ways to adapt the celebration.
"It has transitioned. We've done different annual Day of the Dead exhibits and celebrations in San Francisco, and there were some that people aren't happy with because they're not traditional, but it's never going to be traditional," he says. "That concept cannot happen in a modern city. It's never going to be a traditional thing like what happens in Mexico, so in a way we're kind of reintroducing it and it's going to change."
Fuentes emphasizes the importance of not relating the holiday to Halloween, or thinking of it as "spooky," but as a positive celebration. He recounts the old beliefs of some Mesoamerican cultures around the time Día de los Muertos began as an example of how to look at death differently, no matter what your religious belief.
"It's not a scary thing. I think the people from Mesoamerican time, the way they related to it or thought about it is that our time right now in this world is a dream. We're in a dream-state," he says. "When we die, we come out of our dream and we're going to come into a new reality. So that's a really cool metaphor to think about what we're doing now in the world and how we live through it."
Whichever way it's celebrated, artistic expression plays a key role in how people observe Día de los Muertos, especially in the United States, where the day-long cemetery party isn't as common. Beyond the beauty of colorful altars like the one Torres-Weiner was constructing when we spoke, there are also sugar skulls, a common gift baked with a mix of sugar, water and meringue powder then decorated with cake icing. Music and dance often play a part in celebrations, and it's easy to see how the holiday inspires artists like Fuentes, who currently has numerous Dia de los Muertos-inspired pieces hanging on the wall of his studio.
Though it's easy to see Torres-Weiner used the artistic eye of an expert in constructing her detailed altar with help from friends, she brushed off the implication that her work or artistic expression as a whole is spotlighted during American Day of the Dead celebrations.
"I don't think I would say (that artistic expression defines the holiday)," she says. "I think it's more about community and family being together. Just as when we're baking the food, right now we're talking about our family, friends, we're eating together and remembering those who have passed away. The artistic part I think... that's just how your creativity goes."
Day of the Dead figurines are also a popular part of the holiday, with skeletal characters like Catrina becoming popular among an ever growing community of collectors in Charlotte, said Hernandez. She keeps a shelf of Day of the Dead figurines in her shop and says it draws a lot of attention.
"I had a lady come in just a week ago and say, 'I want to thank you. I was here months ago and I told you that I found that stuff really scary; sugar skulls everywhere just gave me the creeps and you explained to me the origin and how it came to be and now I don't see it that way.'"
She says she's seen a growth in people's interest in recent years and thinks people are coming around to understanding what the holiday is about.
Playing a part in that growth, the Levine Museum of the New South has teamed up with the Latin American Coalition over the last 10 years to hold the biggest Día de los Muertos celebration in Charlotte annually at the museum. The event features traditional music, dancing, face-painting and other educational features.
Oliver Merino, coordinator with the museum, says it's been growing, not just among the Latino population.
"Last year we had 900 people and a line that reached to 7th Street Public Market," Merino says. "It's not just Latinos, the interesting thing is that it's been so diverse."
The event also helps bring Latino families back to that time they spent in the cemeteries if they can't make it back home to commemorate those who passed away in their home country, he said.
"For a lot of Latinos who celebrate Day of the Dead, it's difficult to go back to their country and visit the cemeteries, so they come to the museum to teach their kids what this occasion is," Merino says. "For my family, it's very difficult to go back. The way that we celebrate it is my mom comes to the museum. We see all the people, hear the music you'd hear if you were there and reminisce about places we used to live. But also, we see how some traditions are changing. Because we're in the South now, it's an interesting combination."
For those looking for a more participatory way to observe the Day of the Dead, Fuentes is looking to change the tradition a bit himself before heading back to San Francisco. He's planning a candlelit procession through Uptown on Nov. 2, and said marchers may paint their faces with the traditional, skeletal designs associated with the holiday. He hopes it's the beginning of an annual event.
"I'm hoping if we do this procession it will spark an interest in celebrating here in Charlotte," Fuentes says. "For me, it's just an extension of family — the people I'm meeting now and working with — they're my family here for the time that I'm here and they're the ones that have really reached out and embraced me in this community. That's what I'm doing, just trying to share something with them."
Fuentes, who plans to gather participants in front of the McColl Center at around 7 p.m. on that Monday, invites anybody to attend — as long as they respect the holiday and don't show up in Halloween costumes — regardless of their origin or experience with Día de los Muertes in the past.
"Everybody has lost family, it's a very universal thing," Fuentes says. "Everybody has experienced loss."