Day of the Dead festival celebrates diversity and community

Mexican immigrants bring their culture north during this celebration of life

Young+girls+perform+ballet+folklorico+at+San+Mateo%27s+Day+of+the+Dead+Festival.+Indigenous+people+have+used+dancing+to+pray+to+their+ancestors+and+this+Spanish-influenced+choreography+reflects+Mexico%27s+rich+history.
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Day of the Dead festival celebrates diversity and community

Young girls perform ballet folklorico at San Mateo's Day of the Dead Festival. Indigenous people have used dancing to pray to their ancestors and this Spanish-influenced choreography reflects Mexico's rich history.

Young girls perform ballet folklorico at San Mateo's Day of the Dead Festival. Indigenous people have used dancing to pray to their ancestors and this Spanish-influenced choreography reflects Mexico's rich history.

Khalid Kishawi

Young girls perform ballet folklorico at San Mateo's Day of the Dead Festival. Indigenous people have used dancing to pray to their ancestors and this Spanish-influenced choreography reflects Mexico's rich history.

Khalid Kishawi

Khalid Kishawi

Young girls perform ballet folklorico at San Mateo's Day of the Dead Festival. Indigenous people have used dancing to pray to their ancestors and this Spanish-influenced choreography reflects Mexico's rich history.

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The music could be heard from blocks away, alternating between ancient, indigenous drumming and a Zumba dance class while colorful cotton candy put smiles on faces.

On Oct. 5, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in San Mateo burst into celebration in honor of Dia de los Muertos. Nearly 100 Mexican-Americans watched Aztec dancers, enjoyed traditional food and cold drinks, and danced to old and new Latin music alongside other people of various ethnicities.

Young children took part in the ritual of painting sugar skulls in bright colors while a dance troupe of elementary school children performed ballet folkorico in wavy, floral skirts, their faces painted as skulls.

“One of my favorite things about ballet folklorico is making friends,” said Leslie, a 6-year-old ballet dancer.

The emcee of the day was Jesus U Betta Work. He is a Latinx stand-up comedian born and raised in San Mateo, easily identified by his sequined blazer and mini-sombrero.

One of the things Jesus U Betta Work stressed during the event was the importance of using the festival as a way to deal with grief.

“I think that someone you know, respectfully, can also celebrate a loved one,” the emcee said. “Maybe they don’t really know how to, but I think it’s a great way of coping.”

Second Harvest Food Bank set up a free farmers market while over a dozen vendors sold everything from art to jewelry during the festival.

One vendor, Inkzza Angeles, sold colorful, handwoven ponchos. Angeles noted that Dia de los Muertos is often misconceived and stereotyped by society.

“We celebrate [my family’s] life during Dia de los Muertos,” Angeles said. “A lot of people think that we’re celebrating the death of people, but we are actually celebrating their life and how beautiful and marvelous it was.”

Attendees and organizers welcomed everyone to celebrate during the festival. Smiling faces reflected the bright atmosphere, ranging from elderly, Latina women dancing to songs like Suavamente by Elvis Crespo to Muslim boys and girls cooling off with mango and strawberry flavored shaved ice.

“It’s great that we can have a cultural event for the community that’s open for everyone who wants to come and learn,” the emcee said.

Angeles encouraged those present to add pictures of their ancestors and their favorite items, which are called ofrenda, in memory of these lives. However, Angeles also asked anyone who decided to celebrate to be respectful of tradition.

“It’s a really beautiful thing to spread culture and for people to identify with a culture that isn’t theirs,” Angeles said. “But there is a fine line between respecting the culture and appropriating it as something that belongs to you and using it for monetary gain.”

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