In the United States, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 has been designated National Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Sugar skulls gather in preparation for the festivities marking The Day of the Dead. (Freepik)
The annual observation began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week, inaugurated by President Lyndon Johnson, and expanded to the present 30-day period by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, enacted into law on Aug. 17, 1988 (as Public Law 100-402).
The significance of the dates comes from the fact that Sept. 15 is the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, while Mexico and Chile became independent on Sept. 16 and 18, respectively, and Columbus Day (“Día de la Raza”) comes on Oct. 12.
The growing importance of U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent, as a voting block, my be gathered from the fact that President Biden appointed four Hispanic cabinet secretaries — Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra; Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas; Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and Small Business Administrator Isabel Guzman.
As a salute to the Hispanic heritage of so many Southern Californians, the Elite Theatre Company of Oxnard has established a five-weekend festival it calls The LatinX Experience (Latinx denotes a person of Latin American origin or descent — a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to “Latino” or “Latina”).
The main event of this year’s “Experience” will be the play, “Journey of the Skeletons, A Dia de los Muertos Story,” written by Dr. Max Branscomb, and directed by Juliana Acosta.
[The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. A blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture, the holiday is celebrated each year from Oct. 31 (Halloween) through Nov. 2 (All Souls Day).
In this tradition — which looks back some 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica—the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours.
The spirits of adults can do the same on Nov. 2. As a folk sacred observance, the Day of the Dead derives from the belief of the Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico that the universe is cyclical: they saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life. After death, a person was believed to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Only upon rising through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, could the person’s soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place.
In Nahua rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members provided food, water and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey. This inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead practice in which people leave food or other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes.
[On the Day of the Dead, it’s believed that the border between the spirit world and the real world dissolve. During this brief period, the souls of the dead awaken and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance and play music with their loved ones. In turn, the living family members treat the deceased as honored guests in their celebrations, and leave the deceased’s favorite foods and other offerings at gravesites or on the ofrendas built in their homes. Ofrendas can be decorated with candles, bright marigolds called cempasuchil and red cock’s combs alongside food like stacks of tortillas and fruit.]
Dr. Branscomb’s play is, according to the Elite Theater, “a heart-warming comedy that follows a LatinX family as they prepare to connect with their loved ones who must pass through the underworld to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. However, as fate would have it our beloved characters encounter challenges on their journey including the Lord of the Underworld herself.”
“Journey of the Skeletons” will run each weekend beginning Friday, Sept. 16, with a final performance Saturday, Oct. 8. (Sunday, Oct. 9 will be a Dia de los Muertos Community Celebration.)
Each performance weekend will also feature a variety of Latino Artists from our community, including dancers, poets, storytellers and musicians. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with a special Thursday performance on Oct. 6, at 8 p.m. For more information go to www.theelite.org.
The Elite Theater Company is at 2731 Victoria Ave, Oxnard. Adult admission is $20, $17 for Seniors, Students and Military at $17, and $10 per person for groups of five or more. All proceeds from the Thursday performance will be donated to UNICEF for the children of Ukraine.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are his own.