Arts » 1st Thursday

Idaho State Historical Museum Brings Dia de los Muertos to Life

Experience a Day of the Dead dance performance First Thursday, Nov. 1



The 200-year-old Dia de los Muertos kite tradition is celebrated in two small villages in the jungles of Guatemala--Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango. The villagers spend two months building kites, called barriletes gigantes, out of tissue paper--some of them are as large as 36 feet across--and burn them on the Day of the Dead.

"They burn the kites because that's how fragile life is," said Guisela Zetina-Baruth, a Guatemalan who has studied the tradition.

Zetina-Baruth has lobbied to add a Guatemalan element to the Idaho State Historical Museum's Dia de los Muertos celebration for two years, and this year, officials consented.

From Oct. 30, through Saturday, Nov. 10, the ISHM will feature the kite exhibit, along with traditional Dia de los Muertos altars made by students and local artists. On First Thursday, Nov. 1, ISHM will also host a free Day of the Dead dance performance at 5:30 and 7 p.m. by Off Center Dance and choreographer Monteen-alyss Egbert.

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in much of Latin America on Friday, Nov. 2, when families gather in cemeteries and in the streets to commune with dead loved ones by dining, dancing and playing music at grave sites amid skeleton effigies and parades.

On Nov. 2, ISHM will host a party with food, music and activities for children, including a traditional graveyard celebration at Pioneer Cemetery and a parade of calaveras (people in skeleton costumes) that will make a short circuit around downtown.

The Guatemalan kite tradition has its roots in a local legend: The villagers, seeking to speak with their dead, consulted two wise men on how to frighten away evil spirits that may follow the righteous spirits out of heaven. The wise men replied that the villagers should build kites to frighten the evil spirits for two days, and burn the kites on the second day, Dia de los Muertos.

The museum display will include between 300 and 400 small kites designed and built by 400 fourth- through sixth-grade students at seven schools across the Treasure Valley. There will also be a larger kite, built by museum staff, which will serve as the centerpiece of the display.

Kurt Zwolfer, education specialist at ISHM, has spent weeks constructing it. Built from bits of colored tissue paper arranged in an intricate pattern, it's delicate. And at 12 feet across, it's huge.

Zwolfer has been active in developing the museum's Dia de los Muertos exhibits for three years, and has helped give the holiday a distinctly Boise flavor.

"All of these exhibits are very different from what you'd see in Mexico. This is something that works on what you'd see in Mexico, but this is Boise's take," he said.

To achieve this, Zwolfer commissioned local artists to construct altars. Some of the pieces are traditional, while others aren't--one artist made 4,000 paper altars as part of his project and another built an altar with heavy use of neon lighting.

Dia de los Muertos festivities will extend beyond the museum itself. The parade of calaveras, organized by Celeste Bolin, will take place on Friday, Nov. 2, at 8 p.m. Attendees are encouraged to dress as skeletons for the parade.

And at the Pioneer Cemetery at 4:30 p.m., there will also be a traditional graveside ceremony honoring the life of Jesus Urquides, an early Boise businessman, whom Ana Maria Schachtell, organizer of the event, calls a Mexican-American role model.

Born in Sonora, Mexico, Urquides became a Boise icon during his time as a mule packer transporting food and other supplies to Idaho gold miners during the 1860s, risking his life on the perilous trails and roads leading to Idaho's boomtowns. He died in 1928.

For miners, he was an important connection to civilization, bringing everything from canned food to mail; but for Schachtell, he's a reminder of the Mexican-Americans who helped build Idaho.

"Whoever told the story of Idaho ignored the story of Mexican-Americans in Idaho," she said.

When Schachtell moved to Idaho in 1974, she was shocked at the coverage Mexican-Americans received in the media. As a Latina and parent of two, Schachtell worried about explaining stereotypes and discrimination to her children.

"It seemed to me that when I opened the newspaper, they were focusing on the negative," she said.

She has tried to reverse these stereotypes by seeking Mexican-American role models, working closely with the Hispanic Cultural Center and the Boise City Department of Arts and History to give a greater voice to Boise's Hispanic community.

This is the third year that people will gather at Urquides' grave in Pioneer Cemetery, and the ceremony will include food, music and dancing, as well as storytelling by historian Max Delgado.

Schachtell celebrates Dia de los Muertos at home by building her own altar, decorating it with paper flowers and skulls.

"The skull is reminding you of your life. It's not meant to scare you," she said.

Though the Day of the Dead involves bright costumes, candy and imagery associated with death, it's anything but Halloween.

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