Ceramic skulls sit on a plate at the Pandora store on Capitol Hill in Denver. The owners Chris Bacorn and Stephanie Shearer have been carrying Day of the
Ceramic skulls sit on a plate at the Pandora store on Capitol Hill in Denver. The owners Chris Bacorn and Stephanie Shearer have been carrying Day of the items since their shop open seven years ago. (Manuel Martinez/VivaColorado)

If you want to celebrate Halloween "Latin-style," all you have to do, according to a local Denver nightclub, is swing your hips to the beats of salsa, hip-hop and reggaeton at their Dia de los Muertos celebration Friday.

At another local disco, you can enjoy a "hip-hop Día de los Muertos celebration" next weekend, with drink specials for those who come in costumes.

Welcome to the commercialized - and often misunderstood - version of Dia de Muertos, a sacred Latin American holiday that honors the dead.

As the tradition's popularity has grown, in part thanks to growth of the Latino population, so has the push to make Dia de los Muertos a more marketable - and thus more profitable - celebration. Hence, it's not unusual to find all kinds of events centered around this celebration, including art exhibits, concerts, parades and sugar skull making workshops, even in the smallest of towns.

"It's very close to that date, and they think it's our Halloween," said Rita Flores de Wallace, a Mexican folklorist and artist who has lived in Denver since the '70s and has spent a lot of time educating others about the real meaning behind this ancient tradition with indigenous roots.

"It's a mistake, a big mistake. Halloween comes from Europe, and it's very different because they did have witches over there, and they accepted all that stuff, but it has nothing to do with Dia de Muertos."

Besides falling around the same dates - Dia de Muertos takes place on the eve of Nov. 1 through Nov. 2 - the comparison between these two celebrations probably stems from their common use of skulls and skeletons. The significance behind these symbols, however, is strikingly different.

In Halloween, skulls and skeletons are used in much the same way as images of witches and zombies, to create a spooky and fearful atmosphere. Meanwhile, nothing in Dia de Muertos is associated with evil spirits or scary events.

"To the Western mind, typically when we look at a skeleton, we think eww, creepy, death. But to the Mexican mind, when they look at a skeleton it's a completely different feeling," said Julie Marino, an anthropologist who is the education coordinator at the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council.

Ceramic figurines lay on a table at the Pandora store on Capitol Hill in Denver. The owners Chris Bacorn and Stephanie Shearer have been carrying Day of
Ceramic figurines lay on a table at the Pandora store on Capitol Hill in Denver. The owners Chris Bacorn and Stephanie Shearer have been carrying Day of the items since their shop open seven years ago. (Manuel Martinez/VivaColorado)

"The Mexican view is not to hold this life so tight. It's not all there is. There's more waiting for us on the other side."

Yet while thousands of people across Mexico and Central America honor their dead by embellishing their graves or setting up elaborate altars in their memory, many on this side of the border have jumped on the opportunity to capitalize on what has become a trendy.

A quick online search for products related to Dia de Muertos resulted in the expected skull-bearing T-shirts, stickers, cards, coffee mugs, tote bags, buttons and calendars. But the search also turned up unexpected items such as bibs for babies, flip-flops and bath products.

"It's disrespectful, and it's ignorance. All traditions have turned into that," lamented Wallace, remembering a very different time back in the '70s when the schools that invited her to do her Dia de Muertos presentation would have to ask parents to allow their children to participate.

"We had to fight a lot because the Anglos, the people from here, thought it was voodoo," she said.

So Wallace used her skills as a folklorist to dispel misconceptions and educate people about the true meaning of Dia de Muertos.

Father and son team Manuel Frausto Sr., right, and Manuel Frausto Jr., prepare the traditional Pan de Muerto (bread for the dead) at their bakery in
Father and son team Manuel Frausto Sr., right, and Manuel Frausto Jr., prepare the traditional Pan de Muerto (bread for the dead) at their bakery in Denver. (Manuel Martinez/Viva Colorado)

One little-known legend Wallace loves to share tells the story of how the sugar skulls came to be a symbol of this celebration. She tells it like this: In the year 1350, an Aztec emperor had a sister with whom he had a very close relationship. One day, she asked him to take a stroll with her in his beautifully adorned gardens. As they were walking, she showed him a small cave and told him that when she died she wanted him to bury her there. Assuring her she wouldn't die anytime soon, he agreed. A few days later, the emperor's sister was dead.

Making good on his promise, she was buried in the cave. But three days after the burial, the guards watching over the grave heard someone knocking from inside. Worried they had trapped an animal there, they removed the rock covering the entrance to the cave and were shocked to find the emperor's sister had come back to life and was standing in front of them.

An artist member of the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council installs a piece of art at the gallery on Santa Fe Drive in Denver. The Dia de los Muertos Art
An artist member of the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council installs a piece of art at the gallery on Santa Fe Drive in Denver. The Dia de los Muertos Art Show brings together over 100 veterans and aspiring artist with the central theme of depicting The Day of the Dead. (Manuel Martinez/Viva Colorado)
 

"Don't be scared," she said, according to Wallace. "I have visited death, and death is sweet. Death is sweet."

And so it was through stories like this that little by little people started to understand the real reason behind the celebration, she said.

Eventually some organizations - mostly art galleries and museums - started putting together Dia de Muertos events so the community could take part in the celebration regardless of their cultural background.

An organization that always has several activities to celebrate Dia de Muertos is CHAC, which besides its regular annual events is currently offering a series of adult workshops titled "A Fresh Look at Death," led by Marino. The remaining subjects to be covered are fears of death and hopes of the hereafter, Dia de los Muertos and living life to the fullest.

"Everyone is born into the world fearing death to a certain degree," said Marino. "But we really do try to deny that part of life. We can do heart transplants, we can keep people alive until they're 100 years old. We like to think, 'Yeah, let's just forget about that part.'"

Death, of course, is inevitable, and nobody knows that better than Bill Logan, location manager for Olinger Crown Hill Mortuary and Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, a place that not long ago decided it would be fitting to invite the community to celebrate Dia de Muertos.

"It's fun, but also there's time for families to honor their loved ones that are here in the cemetery," Logan said of the event, which is in its third year and is expecting up to 1,500 people this Saturday. "We just want to help people understand what it's about as far as the educational side of it as well."

And that's exactly what Wallace likes to hear, adding that perhaps the best way to explain Dia de Muertos is to forget Halloween and think Memorial Day instead.

"It's remembering those who have left us," she said. "Simple."