Speaking for the dead 

Same days, different ways

“No one gets out of life alive,” says one of my favorite relatives, a writer in an artistic town not unlike Missoula—except that in his town, he’s a Caucasian minority in a 54 percent Hispanic population. In Missoula, that Hispanic percentage is about 1.7. At the University of Montana, it’s about 1.4, and according to the 2000 Census, Montana’s Hispanic population (a category including Mexican, Latino, Puerto Rican, and Cuban) is 2.1 percent. Not that numbers matter much. Whatever our race, we all share Missoula’s mountains and rivers. We all share Malfunction Junction. We all pull on our Carhartts one leg at a time. And we all die.

Which is likely one reason why Missoula’s Festival of the Dead, now celebrating its 11th year, has flourished in a town in which at least 98.3 percent of the population does not claim the Day of the Dead, el Día de los Muertos, as native to its culture. Both Missoula’s Festival and the traditional Mexican celebration of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2) recognize the interconnectedness of life, death and rebirth. Through food and art, both shed bright light on loved ones’ deaths. But that doesn’t mean the two celebrations are the same. You can put chorizo in one tortilla and tofu in another and have two equally palatable burritos, but those burritos’ greatest similarities might be name and basic principle alone.

In a sampling of Missoulians who’ve experienced the Day of the Dead here and in Mexico, this holiday’s celebrations appear to be, in both places, as variant as Missoula’s population is, um, not.

Kay Grissom-Kiely, the Festival of the Dead director, has done a commendably comprehensive job of coordinating community workshops, art exhibitions and cultural events from mid-October into November, all geared toward educating Missoulians about one of Mexico’s most important traditions. Co-sponsored by VSA Arts of Montana, Missoula’s Festival of the Dead is, according to this year’s poster, “an outgrowth of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration.”

“One thing that is different about the Missoula Festival of the Dead” vs. the Mexican celebration, says Grissom-Kiely, “is that it is trying to embrace different cultures that are represented in Montana. Each Festival of the Dead takes on a different theme and incorporates different types of performances. We’re [also] trying to let people know that this is a great culture, and a tradition to be aware of.” In collaboration with the Missoula Food Bank and the Poverello Center, the theme of this year’s Festival is Promoting Hunger Awareness.

“I saw the celebrations last year,” says William Corbin, a Missoula resident who lived in Mexico for over 30 years. “It really wasn’t very representative of the tradition,” he said, matter-of-factly, “but they seem to be having a lot of fun with it.” Corbin’s son, Glen, moved from Mexico City to Missoula this fall to attend the University and recalls writing notes to the dead and decorating sugar skulls, or calaveras, in school during Days of the Dead in Mexico. But at home, he says his family “didn’t do a big deal of it.” Corbin Sr. explains that some areas of Mexico celebrate the tradition more than others—an observation corroborated by Dennis Bangs, director of Missoula’s It’s Spanish Time Language School.

In Aztec and rural areas of Mexico, says Bangs, “the Day of the Dead is a reverential day…it’s a really big day…when it’s really you and your family connecting with your family’s recently deceased.” But in some urban areas, or areas with less Aztec or Mayan heritage, “it’s not a big thing anymore,” says Bangs. “It’s turned into more of a commercial thing.” He appreciates that Missoula’s Festival of the Dead “is trying to educate people of another way of looking at the dead, at death and dying, which is what the Day of the Dead does in Mexico, but the Missoula artist’s community puts its own stamp on it. I think it’s interesting,” says Bangs, “all the fun stuff that they do…but it’s a long ways away from the tradition.”

Then again, we Missoulians are also a long way from Mexico, which could necessarily alter, or broaden, traditions rooted there. Luis Caro, a waiter at Fiesta En Jalisco on Brooks St., was raised in Jalisco, Mexico, and says he won’t be celebrating the Day of the Dead this year. “I work a lot, so I’m going to work the whole day,” he says, adding that “There are not enough Mexican people [in Missoula] that we can get together. Down in California, they do celebrate big-time.” And back home in Mexico, where Caro still has family, “They bring flowers to the graves…They cook a dish of meatballs and bring them to the graves. And if the [deceased] person liked beer, they bring beer, too. If they used to drink tequila, they bring that.”

Homemade meatballs and Mexican tequila, or Le Petit Outre’s specially made “dead bread” and the Kettle House’s annual Festival Brew, Very Pale Ale: Cheerier than the truth that we all die is the thought that there’s room for all of us, as long as we’re here, to add our own tastes to the parade.

See Calendar for a complete list of festival events.

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