Celebrating Culture: 56-year-old Decatur woman part of city’s inaugural Dia de los Muertos

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Armed with a popcorn machine, chicharrónes, hot sauce and drinks, Maria Gonzalez set up her booth at Decatur’s first Dia de los Muertos celebration last year and waited.

Soon, thousands of people flooded the streets of downtown Decatur and Gonzalez sold out within 45 minutes. The sight of the altars, the people dressed in traditional Mexican outfits and the faces painted like skulls — calaveras — brought tears to her eyes.

“It was beautiful to see a part of my culture brought into the city where I call home. Every culture and every race was there. For the entire community to come and celebrate, it brought tears of joy to me that day. I felt like I was in Mexico,” said the 56-year-old Gonzalez, who has lived in Decatur since 2002.

Organizers estimated that 3,500 people attended Decatur’s inaugural Dia de los Muertos event.

“I was surprised and amazed by the response,” said Mayte Sanchez, one of the event’s organizers and Gonzalez’s daughter. “We were going to be happy with just 50 people, with just 25 people, really, if 10 people showed up, we were going to be happy. We weren’t expecting the response we got.”

Because of her uncertainty about how the community would respond, Sanchez, who organized the event with Jesse Gonzalez and Mari Juarez, reached out to her mother.

“We didn’t know if we were going to have any vendors or any people from the community show up. I said, ‘Mom, I need you to help me. If no one else shows up, I need you to be there for me.’ And she was,” Sanchez said.

“I wanted to be part of the event to support my daughter and because Dia de los Muertos is a tradition from Mexico that I had never seen in Decatur before,” Gonzalez said.

Día de los Muertos translates as “Day of the Dead,” and it’s a traditional Mexican holiday with origins in Aztec and other pre-Hispanic cultures.

Like in other parts of Mexico, in Chilpancingo-Gro, where Gonzalez grew up, Dia de los Muertos celebrations span several days. On Nov. 1, people wait for the younger souls to visit. And, on Nov. 2, they wait for visits from the grown-ups who have passed away.

To honor the dead, Gonzalez created altars, filling them with food, drinks, calaveras and photographs. She also, along with her family, visited the graveyard with flowers and a mariachi band.

“Dia de los Muertos is a big celebration. It is a time the family gets together to share and remember and honor our loved ones,” Gonzalez said.

The Dia de los Muertos event in Decatur last year allowed Gonzalez, who moved to Decatur to provide a better living for her children, a time to, once again, remember.

“I was able to put a picture of my parents on the community altar. That was beautiful and heart-warming to me,” Gonzalez said.

For a glimpse into how Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico, watch the “Coco” movie, Gonzalez said. The Princess Theatre will hold screenings of “Coco” on Oct. 29 at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets cost $7 for adults and $5 for students and seniors.

Decatur’s second annual Dia de los Muertos event will take place Nov. 2, 5-9 p.m.

Sanchez, who was recruited to help out with the inaugural event by Philip Mann, the former executive director of external affairs for the Alabama Center for the Arts, is anticipating an even larger community response to the celebration.

“When Philip approached me, I thought it was a great idea. It’s something I’ve wanted to do, I just didn’t know if it would happen. Our culture, at that point, just didn’t feel like we were very welcome; now we do. We just needed that invitation,” Sanchez said. “Everyone is excited for the event and wanting to be part of it. I expect to see my community come together and experience a piece of our culture and our city because this is our home.”

The event will include authentic Mexican food, food trucks, music, children’s activities, art, community altars and more.

“It will be larger and there will be many surprises coming this year,” Sanchez said.

While Gonzalez hopes to attend the event, because of her job — working second shift as a machine operator at Sonoco in Hartselle — she is unsure if she will be able to participate.

“Even if she is not there physically, I know she will be there in spirit supporting me and our culture,” Sanchez said.

Behind Dia de los Muertos

• Dia de los Muertos coincides with All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. On the first day of the two-day celebration, people remember children who have passed away. On the second day, adults are honored.

• Altars for the dead contain candles, to light the way for the dead, spirit animals called alebrijes, which help lead individuals to the land of the dead, marigolds, whose scent, according to legend, leads the soul of the dead to the land of the living, and skulls. They also contain the individual’s favorite foods, drinks, toys and items.

• Foods association with Dia de los Muertos include the bread Pan de Muertos, the hot chocolate-type drink atole, tamales and sugar skulls.

• Dia de los Muertos began 3,000 years ago in the Aztec, Toltec and Mayan cultures as a way to celebrate and not mourn the dead.