Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun
Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 | 2 a.m.
It may be called "Dia de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead), but the annual two-day celebration isn't really about death.
"It gets confused with Halloween, but the Day of the Dead is really a celebration of life," said Angelica Maralason, spokeswoman for the Springs Preserve and coordinator of the Day of the Dead celebration there. "I think it's so respectful that people remember ancestors and relatives this way, setting up a shrine in their memory and sharing with others who those people were. Unlike Halloween, it's a celebration of spirits. You don't scare them away."
Day of the Dead dates back thousands of years to a monthlong festival celebrated by Aztecs and other Meso-Americans. The Aztec holiday started around the beginning of August. The festivities honored the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as "Lady of the Dead."
When the conquistadores came to Mexico, they tried to squash the ritual and later forced its move to November to coincide with All Saints' Day in the hope that some Catholicism would seep into the holiday.
The festival is typically celebrated over two days, Nov. 1 and 2. The first day is "Dia de los Inocentes," Day of the Innocents, and is dedicated to honoring deceased children. The second day is for everyone else.
Celebrants build altars or "ofrendas" to the deceased they are honoring. The altars include decorations, pictures, favorite foods and other items and are meant to reflect the life and joys of the person being honored.
"There is always food at the altars. You know, the Latino culture does everything around food. It's all about remembering the person through what they liked," said Erika Borges, who organizes the Day of the Dead celebration at Winchester Cultural Center. "My grandmother passed away four years ago. So on Friday we will bring a photo of her and a bottle of Coke because she loved Coke, and my mother will make a pib, a Mexican pizza of sorts from southern Mexico."
People don skull masks and dance as a way of honoring the dead, a direct inheritance from the Aztec ceremony in which skulls were kept and displayed during rituals as a symbol of death and rebirth. Wooden skulls are placed on the altars as well, and people will eat sugar skulls with the name of the dead written on the forehead.
Just because you did not make an ofrenda this year doesn't mean you can't learn more about the tradition or, at the least, indulge in some candy skulls.
Life in Death Festival
The celebration today and Saturday at Winchester Cultural Center, officially dubbed the Life in Death Festival, is the longest-running communitywide event in the valley for Day of the Dead.
The free event continues to grow in its 13th year, expanding to take up more of the park footprint with displays, stages and vendors.
The festival includes a poetry competition, an annual tradition in which scribes submit poems in all forms and styles that typically mock death.
"They are often sarcastic and make fun of death," Borges said. "Everyone else is afraid of death, and these bring out the beauty of it."
In addition to a reading of the poems, there will be musical performances, workshops, including a class on how to make special Day of the Dead bread, and awards for the best ofrendas.
Springs Preserve Dia de Muertos
In 2012 the Springs Preserve expanded its event from one day to two, and so many people came that organizers had to turn some away. So, this year Springs Preserve officials have added a third day.
The event will run today through Sunday, and the preserve will be dotted with more than 30 ofrendas and stages for mariachi bands, dance troupes and other performances.
Additionally, the event will highlight the traditions of celebrating the dead of several other nations, including Brazil, Japan, China and Peru.
This year the celebration even involves the Springs Preserve train, which will make seven stops where visitors will be treated to skits demonstrating Mexican traditions.
The event is limited to 5,000 tickets each day, Maralason said. Ticket prices: $8 for adults; $5 for children 5 to 12; children 4 and younger are free. Springs Preserve members receive 50 percent off admission.
Bars and restaurants
Day of the Dead is an ancient festival steeped in tradition, but, as is the case with every holiday, that doesn't mean you can't simply celebrate with a themed cocktail or two.
A smattering of bars, restaurants and clubs around town are offering special deals and menus over the weekend.
Tacos and Tequila at Luxor will tip its hat to Day of the Dead with the Eye Candy cocktail, Ghost Pepper Salsa and Ghost Pepper Wings. Also, two-for-one specialty margaritas are available today and Saturday.
The vodka-based Eye Candy cocktail is garnished with a "bloody eyeball" made from lychee, blueberry and raspberry puree.
Pink Taco at Hard Rock Hotel features a Day of the Dead margarita made with coffee-infused Patron XO, Grand Marnier and espresso. Artist Anthony "Tee" Celestino of Hart and Huntington Tattoo Company recently finished a mural at the Mexican restaurant that features skeletons in the traditional style of Day of the Dead celebrations.
Hussong's Cantina at Mandalay Place is featuring Day of the Dead beers, a line of craft beers from Tecate, Mexico. There is also the caliente michelada, a cocktail with a hit of spicy Chili Devil Beer. Additionally, patrons can get their face painted in the traditional skull style from 6 to 8 p.m., and a mariachi band will be performing.
The soon to be departing Chef Mike Minor of Border Grill at Mandalay Bay whipped up a Day of the Dead menu that is offered through Saturday. Celebrate your ancestors with black tamales, made with black bean masa and diablo ceviche, with Hawaiian red snapper, candied pumpkin and spicy Peruvian aji panca sauce.
If you need some dancing and more flashing lights to get in the Day of the Dead mood, a few clubs around town are happy to oblige.
Today, Body English in the Hard Rock Hotel will have the "Jack 'n' Cake Day of the Dead" with complimentary alcohol-infused cupcakes and shots of Jack Daniel's. DJs Totescity, Byra Tanks and Halfway House will provide the soundtrack. The party begins at 10:30 p.m.
Ghostbar Dayclub at the Palms is having a Day of the Dead event at 1 p.m. Saturday. The party will include DJs Mark Stylz and Alie Layus, piñatas, confetti explosions, go-go dancers and cocktails.
Finally, for a taste of the tradition without the crowds and themed cocktails, pay Las Vegas City Hall a visit before Thursday.
The "Flowers for the Day of the Dead" display has been up since September and is free to the public.
Hispanic artists were asked to highlight the Day of the Dead through art displaying flowers associated with the holiday. Marigolds are traditionally used to decorate gravesites and the ofrendas because the flower's aroma is believed to scare away evil spirits. Artists included in the exhibit are Justin Favela, Pablo Ferreyra, Adolfo Gonzales, Alexander Huerta, Myra Laws, Theresa Lucero, Sophia McMahan, Rita Ramirez, Roberto Rico, Javier Sanchez and Sandra Ward.
The art is on display in the Las Vegas City Hall Chamber Gallery, 495 S. Main St., second floor.