Editor’s note: We use Latinx and Latine in place of Latino or Latina to remain gender-inclusive.
What is Day of the Dead?
To be clear, Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Many believe Día de los Muertos serves as a passageway between the real and spirit worlds so that loved ones can cross over and visit with their families. It’s an occasion of remembrance and celebration of life rooted in Indigenous Mexican culture and complex colonial history. Modern traditions associated with Día de los Muertos were blended over centuries by European-imposed practices (like All Saints’ Day) and efforts by Mexicans to hold onto their country’s cultural and indigenous identity.
As the holiday has evolved, it is now recognized by Mexico, taught in their school system, and commemorated as a nationwide holiday. Some families begin observing Day of the Dead as early as Oct. 31, but most celebrate the first day on Nov. 1, which focuses on children, or angelitos, or little angels, who passed. The second day focuses on adults, or difuntos. It’s tradition for families and friends to decorate an ofrenda, or an altar, for their dead loved ones to return to when they’re visiting. Ofrendas are typically decorated with a loved one’s favorite food and drink, flowers, bread and other things they might’ve enjoyed in life. Cempasuchil, or marigolds, are typically placed around the altar or on a loved one’s burial site; their heavy scent and bright orange color are essential in guiding them home from the spirit world.
Other hallmarks of this holiday are calaveras, or sugar skulls, and calacas, or skeletons. The skull and skeleton imagery associated with the holiday originates from early 20th-century political satire cartoonist art made by Jose Guadalupe Posada. His most influential work, La Calavera Catrina (a female skeleton adorned with makeup and fancy clothes), was later adopted as an icon for the Day of the Dead.
Día de Los Muertos Events in Portland
Día de Los Muertos at Portland Mercado
For a kid-friendly celebration, head to Portland Mercado’s multi-day Día de los Muertos festivities. Visitors and community members can add their loved ones’ pictures and unique items to the Mercado’s public ofrenda starting Oct. 31 through Nov. 3. Festivities begin with music by Tequila Highway at Barrio, the Mercado’s on-site neighborhood bar featuring Latinx beverage culture. On the second day, families can enjoy local vendors, music, face painting and a special screening of Disney’s “Coco.”
Día de Muertos at Milagro Theater
Each year, Milagro Theater in Southeast Portland hosts Día de los Muertos commemorations and festivities the last week of October through the first week of November. Patrons can enjoy a district-wide ofrenda bike tour, an altar-making workshop for kids, and traditional Aztec dance and altar blessings.
This heritage celebration is the longest-running Día de los Muertos observance in Portland, joined by the theater’s new original production, Las Adelitas, directed by Lawrence Siulagi. Las Adelitas will showcase folkloric dance and music and celebrate the ancestors by sharing cultural traditions like altar-building and decorating.
Central Eastside Muertos Celebration
Born from a community partnership between groups like Milagro Theater and Ideal PDX, a collective of Latine Portland-based artists, the Central Eastside Muertos Celebration will feature various locally designed altars.
At the celebration, artists create their own takes on typical representations of La Catrina, the female skull character associated with the Day of the Dead. Offerings can include a loved one’s favorite food, which stands in for earth, or colorful papel picado (perforated paper) flutters around the altars to represent wind. Altars can be found in various businesses in the area, with most remaining on display through Nov. 5.
Día de Los Muertos in Beaverton
The charm of a fall gathering brings an entire community together; gather your friends and family and head to Beaverton’s community Día de los Muertos Festival, just 15 minutes west of Multnomah Village. Parents with kids rejoice: arts and crafts will be available to keep creative kiddos engaged. The occasion is marked by a traditional Aztec ceremony and Indigenous welcome, followed by danza, dance performances and traditional Día de Muertos food.
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