El Dia de los Muertos celebration: a family affair

Hispanic parents raising American-born kids in the U.S. face the dilemma of balancing two cultures. From how to keep their Spanish, given that the social language is English, to how to make their children aware and appreciative of the traditions of their heritage, especially in the bigger context of American traditions. My parents dealt with that dilemma in many ways, with the main goal of blending the best of both cultures, and in the process, letting me and my sister decide whether we wanted to create a better mix. When we first moved to Princeton, it had seemed that our culture had no representation in our new community. It was a big relief for my parents to find the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP). The ACP was already celebrating two Mexican festivities, Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead. Immediately after finding out about this, my family new they wanted to be a part of sharing our culture with the community, and also making sure that the other Latinos in the community felt the same.

For the past ten years, we have been organizing Day of The Dead as a familial unit with the Arts Council of Princeton. Through the Arts Council, we have been able to keep our traditions alive, as well as share them with the rest of our community, Latino, or otherwise. Throughout the month of October, my family and some sophomore volunteers prepare every weekend in preparation for the actual event, which on this year, land on November 4. Sometimes we even have other Latino families stop by to help out as well. Using the Arts Council Pop-Up Studio in the shopping center, we teach volunteers how to make paper flowers, sugar skulls, and other activities that will be used for the event. Working together every weekend, by the time the event rolls around, we have made over 300 sugar skulls, 40 bottles of vibrant frostings, a few other activities, and a lively arch of orange cempasuchil-like paper flowers. We use the arch to go over the altar during the event, allowing for anyone to bring photos or mementos of their loved ones to place on the altar. On the altar, we also place pan de muertos, which is a traditional Mexican bread formed in the shape of bones, sugar skulls we brought from Mexico, candles, and other decorations. To finish off the altar, we place a giant person-sized skull in the center. Six years ago we created the skull with with the Artistic Director of the Arts Council, Maria Evans, out of wood, chicken wire, and dyed coffee filters. After it was created, the skull appeared on the cover of the New York Times!

On the actual day of the event, aside from all of the activities, we have a faux-cemetery with a mariachi band, ballet-folklorico dancers, and a Mexican restaurant selling traditional foods. Every year, the event has been able to get bigger and better, attracting more and more people from the community to take part. This event has allowed for people from all ethnic backgrounds to come and learn about our traditions and culture. Most importantly, it has allowed for a cultural representation of the Latino community in our town, hopefully bringing a sense of pride into Latino Princetonians. On a more personal scale, this has been a great opportunity for me and my sister to participate in, learn, and understand our cultural heritage.

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