The Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a celebration that spans centuries. In its trajectory through the ages, the celebration has received influences from indigenous peoples, Catholicism, regional differences, and the creativity of those who construct the ofrenda, or altar.
Several elements are typically included on an ofrenda. Photographs of the departed are the centerpiece, as the ofrenda is built to honor and to invite those who have passed to the other world. These photos of the deceased are displayed alongside candles, saints’ pictures, skulls, offerings of food and drink, marigolds, incense, paper cut-outs or papel picado, salt, personal items, crosses, nuts and seeds, and water.
A special bread, pan de muertos, is provided to the deceased and to the living who visit an ofrenda. Pan de muertos is an essential element that has been recorded as originating in the 16th century contact between Spanish and Aztec civilizations. José Luis Curiel Monteagudo, in his book Azucarados Afanes, Dulces y Panes, says, “To eat pan de muertos is for the Mexican a true pleasure, considering the cannibalism of bread and sugar. The phenomena is treated with respect and irony. Defying death, they make fun of her by eating it.” As with the pan de Muertos, each of the items on the ofrenda have their own symbolism that relate to the deceased and their journey back to the living realm.
The three-day celebration of Día de los Muertos takes place on October 31, November 1, and November 2. In New York State, several celebrations are planned in many different locations. A few locations are the following:
- New York Folklore, 129 Jay Street, Schenectady presents an ofrenda, designed by community advocate Ana Lorena Diana, with support from the Schenectady Initiative Program and the Upstate Theater Coalition for a Fair Game. New York Folklore’s ofrenda will be available for viewing from October 31 through November 7, 2020.
- Glow Traditions, in Western New York, invites the public to their ofrenda which will be on view from October 27th through November 1 at the Mariachi de Oro Mexican Grill in Medina, NY, in collaboration with Leonel Rosario. In addition, visitors are invited to the virtual celebration and resource page at https://www.goart.org/glow-traditions/
- Arts Mid-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, is partnering with the Poughkeepsie Public Library and the City of Poughkeepsie for Día de los Muertos programming. Information and a calendar of events can be found at the Poughkeepsie Public Library https://poklib.org/day-of-the-dead-celebration-celebracion-del-dia-de-los-muertos/
- ArtsWestchester, in collaboration with with Edgar and Juana E. Pinyol and the White Plains Public Library, presented Dia De Los Muertos, a program featuring artists from the Mexican, Paraguayan, Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, and Peruvian communities of Peekskill and White Plains. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUvO9A8uH-c&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2vjlvfGiqWUmINMLzIHYDvnNWrxYrkMfyHTTeD0jeCoc6pkdZZxgxe20A
- Bronx Documentary Center and Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders, 614 Cortland Avenue Bronx, NY have created a special “COVID-19” ofrenda, dedicated to those who have lost their lives to COVID-19.
Finally, visit the web-pages of NYSCA Living Traditions to view videos and other programmatic materials related to Día de los Muertos in New York, including building an ofrenda and making a traditional Oaxacan sand painting.
For more information or to view images and/or videos relating to Día de los Muertos, visit this beautiful visual documentary site of Dane Strom:
Image courtesy of Aurelia Fernandez
Starting on Monday, September 7 and running through Friday, September 11, people throughout the country will create grassroots memorials dedicated to naming the lost who have died from Covid-19. In homes and yards, on street corners and stoops, in cities from Portland to Austin to Brooklyn, these memorials make our grief visible. This “labor of mourning” is initiated by Naming the Lost Memorials, a group of artists, activists, and folklorists who have been making public awareness memorials in New York City since May. They invite people everywhere to join them in making memorials during the week that begins with Labor Day on September 7 and ends with the 19th anniversary of September 11, 2001, when spontaneous memorials arose throughout New York City in response to the deaths of nearly 3,000 New Yorkers in the attack on the World Trade Center.
As the United States nears 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19, Naming the Lost Memorials sees grassroots memorials filling a real need. “There has been no national day of mourning set aside for the Covid dead,” says folklorist Kay Turner. “So many people died alone, and burials and rituals have been deferred. While heads of state do not perform their solemn duties to comfort the afflicted and mourn the dead, the rest of us rise to confront this tragedy.”
Born in New York City, Frank DeCaro was a Professor of Folklore in the English Department of Louisiana State University from 1971-2004. He was the first Chair of the Louisiana Folklife Commission and was the editor of “The Louisiana Folklife Miscellany”. He was much loved by his fellow folklorists for his humor and generosity. He had a distinguished career as a folklorist. He died from COVID-19 in March 2020. We mourn his passing.
Those who are interested in participating in Naming the Lost Memorials can visit www.namingthelost.com/memorials to learn how to make a memorial, find public resources for researching names and stories of the dead, submit photos and videos to the archive, and more. During the week of creation, participants are invited to share their photos and videos using the hashtags #namingthelostmemorials and #namingthelost.
“Creating the memorials has been a way to recognize and honor those who have been lost, but also a way to connect us as a community as we work with artists, activists and scholars on this project–finding ways to not feel alone, to contribute and give back to our communities and lastly, to give voice to our disappointment, anger, and sadness concerning the way this crisis has been handled by those in a power,” said Elena Martinez, volunteer organizer of Naming the Lost Memorials.
Yitzhak Levy-Awami of Brooklyn, (on the left) was a wonderful dance teacher of Yemeni Dance traditions who participated in folk arts programs of the Brooklyn Arts Council. He worked for 28 years as a Paraprofessional for the New York City Department of Education, working for 25 of those years at P.S. 205 Clarion in Brooklyn, NY. We mourn his passing.
In Schenectady, New York Folklore invites people to visit their memorial at 129 Jay Street, Schenectady from September 9 – September 11, 2020. We invite anyone to post a photograph or other remembrance to honor a loved one lost to COVID-19.
In creating these memorials, we invite you to join us, in the labor of mourning.
Calvin Kaintuck of Elmont, NY learned to ride horses in Baltimore, MD and started out as a “hot-walker” in the stables of the Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore. He served in World War II, and when he returned from the war he studied electrical engineering. He made a career at Sylvania Electric in Oyster Bay, NY, all the while continuing to ride as an exercise rider at the Belmont and Aqueduct Racetracks. When interviewed for the Library of Congress in 2012, he was riding for trainer Cleveland Johnson, although he was 93 years old at the time. He died from COVID-19 in April 2020. We mourn his passing.
New York Folklore is pleased to announce the disbursement of funds totaling $11,000.00 to benefit folk and traditional artists in New York State. These funds are made possible through the generosity of donors from throughout the United States, including support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation as well as many private donors. Private donations were received through a Go Fund Me Campaign for COVID-19 Relief for Folk and Traditional Artists in New York State.
Thanks to a successful campaign, grant funds of $500.00 or $250.00 will be distributed to twenty-five folk and traditional artists across the state, with each of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Economic Development Regions of the State being represented by a grant to at least one artist. The artists chosen represent diverse cultural groups. They are practicing traditional art that reflects one’s location or one’s membership in a specific population group of New Yorkers. Haudenosaunee artists were awarded funds, with support going to those who are known for their beadwork, bone and antler carving, traditional music and dance, and splint ash basketmaking from Seneca, Tuscarora, Oneida, Onondaga, and Mohawk nations. Artists continuing cultural traditions from Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico, Ireland, Guinea, Ghana, Turkey, Argentina, China, The Republic of Georgia, Algeria, and Tibet received support, as did artists who make art stemming from the African American experience (hair design, gourd instruments, quilting), Adirondack rustic furniture making, and the LGBTQ tradition of ballroom/runway.
Located in Schenectady, New York Folklore works to nurture traditional arts and culture in New York State through education, support, and outreach. New York Folklore envisions a world where the diverse traditions of New York State are fully recognized, appreciated, and supported. This COVID-19 initiative by New York Folklore recognizes that folk artists who rely on work in the gig economy are suffering greatly during the pandemic. The loss of income is especially prevalent during the summer months, as during this time New York’s communities stage outdoor events focused upon their own community cultural expressions, providing one-time fees for artists’ participation. The widespread cancellation of performances, festivals, exhibitions, and teaching opportunities has directly impacted New York’s folk and traditional artists.
The July 23, 2020 release of Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, begs the question, “What is folklore?”. Refinery 29, the media and entertainment company dedicated to women’s perspectives, asks, “what does folklore mean anyway?” Natalie Morin, writing for Refinery 29, explains that “folklore is the traditional customs preserved among a community, like stories, legends, songs, sayings, dances and popular beliefs,” and also “folklore is a belief that’s been widely circulated and well-known without any supporting evidence.” (Morin, Refinery 29, July 23, 2020).
As the Executive Director of New York Folklore – New York’s statewide organization for the field of folklore– I am writing to suggest a more accurate portrayal of folklore and its role in human life. While often portrayed as “inaccuracies,” or “quaint and old-fashioned,” folklore is much more than that misunderstood characterization. Although folklore does connect people to their past, the expression of folklore is an integral part of life in the present. Its manifestation is at the center of the idea of culture. While folklore may include, as Morin states, “traditional customs,” as well as ideas that are not backed up by “evidence” (the multiple reports of Bigfoot occurrences nationwide, for example), folklore is, more accurately, the human, creative responses to very real, lived experiences. Perhaps Laura Snapes’ review in The Guardian, (July 24, 2020) gives us the best rationale for the album’s title when she says that Folklore shows an “authentic” side to Swift.
“Authenticity” is an important concept to folklorists and those who follow and study folklore. Every group of people that shares a sense of identity shares folklore as part of their identity. Folklore is the “authentic” way that people comment upon their shared experiences. Folklore during the current COVID-19 pandemic is all around us and it is easily apparent in the ways that people are responding creatively to their experiences. Folklore is visible through the creative fabrications of the home-made facemasks. Folklore is expressed through the changing ways that teens and schools are marking an important rite of passage by creatively re-working high school graduation ceremonies. Folklore is visible in the Black Lives Movement through the memorials and street art created by communities expressing their grief over the murder of George Floyd, and through the ways that the shared experience of being Black in America is commented upon and creatively expressed through folk narrative, folk art, folk music, and practice throughout the Black community – no matter the geography, social class, educational attainment or age of the individual.
I ask those who are intrigued with Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, to use this moment as a stepping-off place to find out about folklore in your own communities. Folklorists are working throughout New York State – in arts organization, museums, universities, and libraries – to draw attention to the diverse ways that folklore is apparent in our communities and to support folklore and folk arts at the grassroots. One doesn’t have to look far, as there are vast resources at your fingertips – including New York’s statewide organization, New York Folklore (www.nyfolklore.org), the American Folklore Society (www.afsnet.org); and the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, (www.loc.gov/folklife). Like Swift’s song titled “Cardigan,” you may find that folklore is that part of yourself that is familiar and well-worn, yet evocative and deeply meaningful. Folklore is complicated.
New York Folklore is raising money to benefit the “New York State Folklore Covid-19 Relief Fund.” Your donations will make an impact. We hope to raise $10,000 by June 1, 2020 to assist folk and traditional artists with emergency grants.
With the money raised, New York Folklore is awarding one-time grants of up to $500 to New York State’s folk, traditional and community-based artists impacted by Covid-19. Grants will help with specific short term financial needs (food, assistance with medical bills, rent, etc). This initiative is for all New York State residents and is an expansion of the New York City-based Folk Artists Covid-19 Relief Fund by The Center for Arts, Tradition, and Cultural Heritage (C.A.T.C.H.). C.A.T.C.H. has already raised significant funds and is now opening the application phase of their New York City-based initiative. Information on the New York City initiative for Covid-19 Relief can be found below.
Please join me today by donating to our emergency fund. Donate HERE https://www.gofundme.com/f/ny-folklore-covid
Folk and traditional artists are some of the individuals who have been most financially affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing. While folk and traditional artists do not usually rely upon their art as their sole means of support, folk and traditional artists have experienced economic hardship due to the cancellation of community and public events, as well as the loss of revenue from art sales. In many cases, this loss is in addition to the loss of their primary income through restaurant and retail closings, furlough, etc. – which causes a two-fold impact on many artists’ livelihoods. Those tradition bearers who reflect already economically marginalized communities – Native communities, immigrants, and refugee communities – may not be in line for assistance by other Covid-19 relief funds. Our fund will specifically target artists from marginalized and at-risk communities.
For emergency funding specific to New York City, follow this link: https://catchnyc.net/covid-19-relief