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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s a celebration’: Latinos en Spokane honors lost loved ones at multiday Dia De Los Muertos event

On Monday night, Karen Flores lights a candle for one of two alters Latinos en Spokane made to celebrate Day of the Dead, mostly known as Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Karen Flores has been celebrating Dia de los Muertos since she can remember with her large family with a five-day program.

“For those celebrations they all would get together and it was a warm environment,” said Flores, 44, who is Mexican. “My 11 uncles, cousins and a lot of families always had a very different and a mystical presence around those days.”

In light of the global spiritual holiday, Latinos en Spokane, of which Flores is a member, hosted a five-day celebration to acknowledge Dia de los Muertos, a tradition that mourns family and friends who have died.

Flores and other volunteers created the event with extreme precision and intention, including the aroma of marigold flowers to guide the ancestors back to the altars created in their honor, and bringing bowls of water to nourish the spirits’ thirst after their long journeys.

“The candles are important because they guide and provide light to their travels and give them their favorite drink,” she said. “They’re so many things and symbols, maybe a guitar because that was an instrument they loved to play, their favorite sombrero, their favorite hat to wear. And it’s a celebration.”

Though the holiday starts on Oct. 31, heavy Catholic influence has extended the event to All Saints Day and All Souls Day, Catholic holidays on Nov. 1 and 2. Instead of celebrating Halloween, Latinos en Spokane focused on Dia de Los Muertos festivities with face painting and sharing stories of urban legends of spirits and souls. Candy and sweet bread were offered to children.

Jennyfer Mesa, a co-founder of Latinos en Spokane, specified that the altars were more of a spiritual celebration instead of religious, which helps widen the audience of those who want to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Though of Colombian origin, Mesa celebrates the holiday to honor her son’s paternal Mexican heritage.

“This is all spiritual, not religion,” Mesa said. “(The spiritual use) of candles and sharing stories of our loved ones, sharing bread, is about sharing with our community and having a moment to be together and admiring and sharing stories about the life of our loved ones.”

To celebrate their memory, volunteers decided that one altar would be inside the office and one outside. People could drive up and pay their respects in light of COVID restrictions. Each altar has seven tiers.

“Each tier is an opportunity for the soul to come back and go to step in the ‘Micdlaina,’ which is an opportunity to get their eternal rest,” Flores said. “Both altars will be the same; the one indoors we’re using to just hold workshops.”

Latinos en Spokane celebrated from Oct. 27 to Tuesday. Each day honored a different group of loved ones. On Oct. 27, community members left tributes to their “four-legged loved ones.” On Oct. 28, participants gave respect to those who died suddenly. Someone brought trinkets dedicated to Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant who, along with daughter Gigi Bryant and seven others, was killed in a plane crash in February 2020. They dedicated Nov. 1 to deceased children. Tuesday night, Latinos en Spokane welcomed the arrival of all the departed saints for the final day of celebration.

“It was an example, but people were bringing pictures in and were able to say goodbye, storytelling, sharing and honoring their lives,” Mesa said.

Latinos en Spokane dedicated Saturday to “forgotten souls,” something that was critical to the community at large. COVID is still halting families across the world from reuniting and celebrating those who have passed throughout the pandemic.

Dia de los Muertos gives those mourning friends and family lost to COVID complications a chance to mourn as a spiritual collective. In the United States, the Latinx and Hispanic community have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. They are two and three times more likely to die from complications related to COVID.

“We’re trying to continue the tradition during this time of such uncertainty and loss with COVID,” Mesa said. “We’re feeling (the disproportionate impact) because we can’t be close to our families and can’t go home because COVID restrictions and citizenship statuses. With borders shut down, we all have family members that we haven’t been able to say farewell to.”

Hailing from the Mexican city of Guadalajara, former teacher Margarita Plascencia-Janes makes sure the children understand the holiday’s cultural significance. On the final night, she brought in a children’s book about a boy spiritually reconnecting with his grandfather.

“It’s so important for the children to see the dead in another way,” She said. “So they can understand and continue loving the people they’ve lost.”

Family and friends brought pictures and items for their loved ones that died. A projector played a video titled “Cuento infantil El día de Muertos de Ivar Da Coll.” Plascencia-Janes fought through tears for her lost ones.

“This is all so hard but it is such a beautiful tradition,” She said about the final touches. “It’s nothing to be sad about but a day to celebrate because we know that they are coming to us.”