Study the history of any culture around the world and you will find folk art— everything from basketry, weaving, pottery, food, and musical instruments to masks, jewelry, face painting, and traditional dance. The folk arts serve as an expression of cultural identity.
On October 21-23, Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA) invites the community to embrace the folk arts of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, an ancient tradition whose roots predate modern Mexico. Taking place at the Breckenridge Arts District, the weekend includes a slate of free activities in which participants craft traditional sugar skulls, paper flowers, masks, and a community altar; take part in face painting and dance workshops; and enjoy performances by the Aztec dance group, Grupo Huitzilopochtli Danza Azteca. The activities are led by bilingual instructors from Journey Through Our Heritage, a program at Metropolitan State University Denver that partners with BCA for the event.
Traditionally, Día de los Muertos celebrates the lives of people who have passed on from this world into the next, and each folk art has its meaning in that context. The paper flowers or “papel flores” symbolize the fact that “our life is a beautiful flowering event,” explained Dr. Renee Fajardo, director of the MSU Denver program. The masks and face painting offer a way to “transform yourself spiritually and mentally from walking in this world to a different place in the universe,” she said.
Thus the Aztec dancers will don face and body paint, bringing them closer to the spirit realm as they pass on prayers through dance. “Every culture has some kind of masking tradition,” Fajardo said, citing her own people—the Pueblo Indians—who are known for their masked Katrina dancers.
“In Colorado we have always been a crossroads of lots of different people,” she said. “This was Mexico before it was Colorado. We’ve had miners and ranchers and railroad workers here. We are a conglomeration, not a melting pot—a beautiful tapestry of all the people who’ve come here.”
“What’s interesting,” she noted, “is that everyone who has passed through these mountains and valleys and rivers—if you follow their roots, they have a celebration of their past people.” Examples include Samhain in Ireland’s Celtic tradition, and of course Halloween. “When you put candles out for ‘Muertos’ you are calling back your ancestors,” she explained. “It is very historically relevant in the context of the people who have traveled to Colorado.”
Not only does Día de los Muertos celebrate lost loved ones, it also reminds us that death is not something to be feared. “That’s why we do the sugar skulls—because death is sweet,” Fajardo said. “It is a transition that is part of the natural process of our time here on earth.”
Among the pieces to be featured at the Breckenridge celebration is a hand-hewn community altar at Randall Barn, decorated with candles, water, and earth to represent the elements; food for the dead; and flowers. Community members are invited to bring their own mementos of lost loved ones to place there.
“Last year was really emotional for me because I had just lost my dad,” said Jenn Cram, BCA’s director of public programs and engagement. She placed a photograph and a Snickers bar— her dad’s favorite candy—on the altar. “It gives you the opportunity to remember those stories of people we love and miss, and the opportunity to make art in their honor.”
Even though the altar is based in Mexican culture, the desire to celebrate a lost loved one’s life crosses cultural bounds, making for a meaningful, shared experience. At the same time, it illuminates a tradition dear to some high country residents, but less well-known by others.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how diverse Breckenridge is,” said Fajardo, who presents educational exhibits around the state and beyond, supported by the Colorado Folk Arts Council, with her students from MSU Denver. Her students, too, represent a diversity of backgrounds. Many have never been to Breckenridge, so being a part of Día de los Muertos opens their eyes to new places as well.
“The greatest benefit of celebrating Día de los Muertos together is that all of a sudden it’s not just visitors and locals, it becomes a sort of celebration of us as human beings, and our humanity,” Fajardo said. “We become a whole community of people.”
Breckenridge Creative Arts aims to grow such community connections through its Día de los Muertos celebration, which is now in its third year. “We want to make the arts in Breckenridge accessible to our entire community,” said Robb Woulfe, chief executive officer of the nonprofit. “Our hope is to open our arms and engage the greater Hispanic/Latino community in what we are doing through Día de los Muertos and other relevant programming.”
Woulfe is thrilled that other community groups are coming on board with that goal, in particular The Summit Foundation, which awarded BCA a $10,000 grant for Día de los Muertos this year, helping make it possible to provide the activities free of charge.
One of the group’s goals is “to increase access to arts and culture opportunities, especially for youth and people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to participate,” said Jeanne Bistranin, who came on board as executive director of The Summit Foundation last year. “Not only is this event reaching out to the diverse populations in our community, but it’s really helping us to learn about different cultures as well.”
Bistranin expressed appreciation on behalf of the board for BCA’s emphasis on hands-on experiences. “Not only are you observing and enjoying this wonderful art,” she said, “you also have the opportunity to contribute. That helps to elevate the experience, but also to remember it. We’re really excited about partnering with Breckenridge Creative Arts on this event,” she added. “It’s a perfect alignment of what we are both trying to do.”
“Día de los Muertos offers many different aspects to celebrate,” Fajardo said. “There’s a whole ebb and flow of a community going on. It creates a new life of relationships between all these different people.”
Beyond that, there’s no denying the richness and beauty of the Day of the Dead folk arts. “Día de los Muertos is a colorful, layered and artful tradition,” Woulfe said. “We are delighted to present this exhibition to our community.”