In honor of our ‘muertos’

A stroll through Breckenridge’s Valley Brook Cemetery reveals picturesque perspectives and vistas like a well-manicured park—and that’s no accident; it’s what the designers intended. Many early American cemeteries were designed to be park-like places where you could enjoy a Sunday picnic while communing with your dearly departed.

Our forebears’ take on death has much in common with Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated largely in the cemetery, where families gather to string decorations, feast, and make merry in memory of loved ones past.

“It’s not sad,” explained Ana Valles of the Mexican Cultural Center in Denver, which joins Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA) this year as a partner in the local Día de los Muertos celebration, taking place October 20-22 in the Breckenridge Arts District. “It’s about getting together, sharing stories, and having fun remembering our loved ones,” she said.

The Breckenridge event, now in its fourth year, has taken hold as a time for community members from all cultural backgrounds to experience folk art traditions that date back to the ancestors of the Mexican cultural holiday—creating sugar skulls and paper flowers, watching Aztec and folkloric dancers, even learning the dances themselves. There’s a nightly candlelight vigil, and fond remembrances of loved ones lost.

It’s also an opportunity to learn more about Day of the Dead and related cultural traditions from around the globe, with students and teachers from Metropolitan State University Denver’s “Journey Through Our Heritage” program leading craft and dance workshops while shedding light on the meaning behind the traditions.

“Día de los Muertos demonstrates a strong sense of love and respect for one’s ancestors; celebrates the continuance of life, family relationships, and community solidarity; and allows people to talk about and find humor in death,” explained Dr. Renee Fajardo, director of the MSU Denver program.

Contemporary art of Mexico
Although the event officially kicks off October 20, the work of contemporary Mexican artists Damián Ortega and Pedro Reyes will be featured in the quarterly installment of BREW: Ideas + Creation Lab, taking place the night before on October 19. Ortega’s work uses everyday objects from Volkswagen Beetles and Day of the Dead posters to locally sourced corn tortillas; Reyes is known for turning guns into musical instruments and transforming existing problems into ideas for a better world. The evening starts with a screening of film selections from the Art21 PBS documentary “Mexico City,” followed by a panel discussion on how art can provide community solutions and spark positive change. The panelists include Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family Intercultural Resource Center; Marcela de la Mar, executive director of the Mexican Cultural Center; and Andrés Chaparro, president and general manager of Telemundo Denver.

On Friday from 4-6 p.m. there will be a talk with the contemporary Mexican designer, Ignacio “Nacho” Cadena, whose installation “Los Trompos” is on exhibit in the Breckenridge Arts District through October. Created with partner Héctor Esrawe, “Los Trompos” consists of a series of contemporary, large-scale spinning tops constructed of colorful, woven cords evoking the traditional weavers of indigenous Mexico, which visitors can climb on and set in motion. The work is meant to inspire playfulness, human interaction, and modern-day community building. Another installation by Esrawe and Cadena called “La Musidora”—a series of a series of folding chairs also constructed of woven cords—is currently on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, which is partnering with BCA to promote the two works. Both “Los Trompos” and the growing Día de los Muertos celebration are generously funded by The Summit Foundation.

A tradition of ancestors
Day of the Dead ramps up on Friday, October 20 with an opening party immediately following Cadena’s talk. In addition to the various folk art activities, there will be daily face-painting, make-and-take crafts in the Breckenridge Theater, a photo booth, and an exhibit of meta-realist and Neo-Pre-Columbian works by Stevon and Arlette Lucero in Old Masonic Hall.

On Friday and Saturday in Old Masonic Hall, the Mexican Cultural Center will offer workshops with Rita Flores de Wallace, the classically trained artist and master Mexican folklorist who has long been a staple of Muertos celebrations in Denver. The octogenarian will teach participants to make traditional Day of the Dead symbols using felt.

Students from MSU Denver will lead the creation of an altar in Randall Barn, where community members are invited to give an offering, or “ofrenda,” for loved ones lost. In Mexico, Valles explained, altars honoring the lives of those who have passed away is one of the most popular Day of the Dead traditions. “Altar offerings can range from food baked in the shape of skulls to incense or yellow marigolds,” she said. “These are elements that spirits enjoy when they return to earth to visit their families and friends.”

Wrapping up the weekend’s activities is a performance by the popular band, Jarabe Mexicano, at the Riverwalk Center Sunday afternoon.

In the cemetery
Meanwhile across town, Breckenridge continues to interpret the lives of those who came before with its Tombstone Tales at Twilight tour in Valley Brook Cemetery, offered by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance (BHA). Docents in Victorian-era garb lead guests back in time to 1880’s Breckenridge, offering a look at how and why the cemetery came to be, and local history through the lives of those who lie there.

“You’re introduced to prominent people in Breckenridge history, but also paupers and less prominent people who obviously also played a role,” said Larissa O’Neil, executive director of the BHA. “There are stories of flu epidemics— particularly the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1919— and other factors that really changed the town over time. One thing that always strikes me is the number of young mothers and babies, and families that had multiple children who only lived days or months up here.”

An art in and of itself, Valley Brook is the only known example of a cemetery in Colorado that is laid out in the pattern of a Celtic cross—a distinction that earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Headstones illuminate the careful artistry of our forebears, with rich symbology including urns and cherubs, globes and lambs, crosses and clovers, and heartfelt messages engraved thereon.

At the same time, Valley Brook is also an active cemetery. “You’ll see tombstones from 1880 next to ones that are five years old,” O’Neill said. “It’s pretty atypical, but a pretty neat part of the way the cemetery was designed.”

As such, Valley Brook Cemetery remains a place—like the cemeteries and altars of Day of the Dead—where family and friends return to recall their loved ones, and to make offerings of flowers and other ephemera in their memory.

Mexican Cultural Center //
Día de los Muertos //
MSU Denver Journey Through Our Heritage //
Breckenridge Heritage Alliance //
Los Trompos //

Photos: Liam Doran, Joe Kusumoto