Raising the Dead

The twin towers meet Día de los Muertos at the Arizona Historical Society.

Families traditionally celebrate the Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, in their homes or at the local cemetery on November 1. Flower petals and incense guide the spirits of friends and relatives to the living so that the two can commune. Loved ones place food and drink that the deceased enjoyed on a small shrine decorated with flowers and candles. The celebrants later consume the food in the deceased's memory. But this is not a somber affair. It's a party. It is not uncommon for people to go to dances as part of the celebration and dance the night away.

In honor of the holiday, the Arizona Historical Society puts on a yearly exhibit of its own. Sculptor Julia Benites Arriola, who has curated that exhibit for the past four years, says the current exhibit, Twin Towers: Viva Los Muertos, is a big departure from what the Arizona Historical Society has done previously.

"We're getting a lot of attendance," says Arriola, who remembers her first exhibit as "absolutely traditional" because it consisted primarily of photographs and traditional Day of the Dead food such as hojaldra, a type of sweet bread especially baked for the holiday, and skulls made of sugar. But since that first exhibit, Arriola's altars have become progressively theme-driven to reflect events.

After September 11, 2001, Arriola decided to make the Day of the Dead exhibit more topical. "A lot of things changed and I just thought that it had been a pretty rough year for not only the States, but the world," she says. "And I just thought we needed to stand back a little bit and just rest."

Arriola's current sculpture consists of two 8-foot tall black towers illuminated from within. The light escapes small holes in the towers, which have marigolds and lights surrounding the base. To the side there is an altar with a book for visitors to write notes and messages for the deceased and some space for guests to leave offerings. But besides a simple altar and flowers at the base of the towers, this exhibit contains little else so as not to distract from the power of the sculpture.

"I want the celebration to be inclusive and not only for Hispanics," says Arriola.

Joan Niven, the Arizona Historical Society's marketing director, attributes the community's positive feedback to the current artwork's strong symbolic value, which she believes allows people to personalize this year's exhibit.

"When you're celebrating the dead ... you remember those that have meant a great deal to you whether they be a relative, friend, someone who inspired you, or perhaps tragedies that have happened to those you don't know," Niven says. Celebrating those people allows the Day of the Dead "to become very personal for you. ... It's about remembering [the dead] in a very positive way. ... It's a celebration of life."

Arriola believes the Day of the Dead is of particular importance to Tucsonans because of Tucson's proximity to the Mexican border. But besides the Old Pueblo's geographic location, Arriola believes the day is increasing in popularity "not only with Hispanics but with the whole population. ... Maybe we're starting to see how separate we aren't. We really are one."

Looking ahead to next November 1, for those wishing to observe the Day of the Dead for the first time, or those returning to the celebration and wishing to try celebrating the occasion privately, Arriola recommends that the commemorator first think of whom they would like to remember. "Everyone has loved ones that have passed, even children," says Arriola. "They may have a pet that passed ... and all it takes is a little space in one's home. Put a picture of the loved one or the loved pet in that space with some items that they liked. Have some flowers, candles, and it's very simple. Very simple and very personal."

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