As I drove around downtown Issaquah on the evening of Nov. 2, I was surprised by how difficult the task of parking my car was proving to be.
Given it was a Saturday evening, I figured things would be busy, but cars were parked in every conceivable spot. It took some time, but I finally parked and headed the few blocks to my destination: the Issaquah Depot Museum.
Upon arrival, I was once again surprised by how busy it was. Inside the building, people crowded around an altar decorated in bright colors, with flowers, food and photos of the deceased. Along the walls, people stopped by stations to sample Mexican treats.
This was all part of a Dia De Los Muertos — or Day of the Dead — celebration put on by the Latino Club.
It all started about a decade ago when Alicia Spinner first moved to Issaquah. Originally from Mexico, Spinner celebrated the holiday in her home for herself. She said her neighbors were curious so for two years in a row, Spinner invited friends and neighbors from the community into her home for the celebration and to educate them on her cultural traditions. That second year, Spinner said her home was packed with people — many of whom she did not know personally — so she decided it was time to move the celebration to a different venue. For seven years, Spinner organized a Dia De Los Muertos event in the Issaquah Highlands.
This was the first year the event was held in downtown Issaquah with partners from local organizations including the Issaquah Schools Foundation and King County Library System. And all these years, Spinner has organized the events as a Latino Club coordinator.
There also was a separate event held in the Highlands on Nov. 1
Honoring the dead
For those unfamiliar with Dia De Los Muertos, the holiday honors people who have died — Nov. 1 for children who have died and Nov. 2 for adults who have died.
And while a holiday honoring the dead may seem sad or morbid, it is in fact a celebration.
“It’s a party,” Spinner said.
Some of the traditions include creating an altar in the home to honor family members who have passed. The altar can include anything that held special meaning for a late relative, ranging from food and drinks (“We cook for days to get ready for the event,” Spinner said), to special candies or even a rosary.
Spinner said she places talcum powder on her altar in honor of her grandmother because that was something her grandmother had used often.
“I want her to feel welcome,” she said of her grandmother.
On Dia De Los Muertos, people also will go to cemeteries where their relatives are buried prior to the holiday to decorate grave sites in bright colors in preparation for the holiday, during which they visit the graves to share a meal with their ancestors.
Carlos Jimenez, executive director of Centro Cultural Mexicano in Redmond, said it is one of the biggest holidays in Mexico as entire families will come together to celebrate. Some people will even travel back to Mexico specifically for the holiday, he said.
Sharing one’s culture
Centro Cultural Mexicano also held a Dia De Los Muertos celebration on Nov. 2.
Director Angie Hinojos Yusuf said the idea behind the event was to open their doors to the Redmond community and to share their Mexican culture and what is meaningful to them with others.
“We feel a real responsibility to our community and to the wider community to share some of the roots of the things we are observing,” she said.
People were invited to bring pictures of people who have died to place on the altar and some did. Attendees shared stories about their loved ones and while not everyone shared with the group as a whole, Jimenez and Yusuf said people also shared stories with each other as they mingled during the event.
Attendees also contributed to the altar in other ways. After one woman learned about what the different items on the altar signified, Yusuf said the woman left the event for about 20 minutes to go to the store and buy some fruit to place on the altar as an offering.
Yusuf said for people who do not celebrate or were not familiar with Dia De Los Muertos, coming to their event and bringing a photo of a deceased loved one was “a leap of faith.” They may have not known what was going to happen to their photo but still brought one to participate in the activities.
“That kind of trust is what communities are really built on,” Yusuf said.
While the traditions surrounding Dia De Los Muertos may be very specific, Jimenez and Yusuf said some people at their event shared some of the traditions they had in their culture to honor the dead — some were similar and some were different.
And as different or unfamiliar one culture’s traditions may be to others, once people learn about them and their significance, they may come to relate them to some of their own traditions, building empathy and understanding within a community.
In addition to attendees from different cultural backgrounds, there were people of all ages at the event, from toddlers and their parents and grandparents, to groups of teenagers coming in to check out the festivities.
The events in Redmond as well as in Issaquah were also an opportunity for the younger generation to learn about their culture.
The McBride family of Snoqualmie attended the Issaquah event and Rob McBride, who was visiting his son’s family from California, said the event allowed his grandchildren — who have Mexican, Colombian and Irish heritage — the opportunity to learn a bit about some of their mother’s (his daughter-in-law) culture.
“This is really good for the kids,” said McBride, who thought the event was great. “I hope they do this in schools.”
He added that he hoped there would be cultural events like this one for Native American holidays.
Coming from a place of respect
Although the two events in downtown Issaquah and Redmond were hosted and organized by members of the local Mexican American community, Dia De Los Muertos has become more mainstream and commercialized.
From flowerpots and clothing bearing sacred symbols, to public events, Dia De Lost Muertos has become popular beyond the Mexican community.
This brings up the question of cultural appropriation, misappropriation and misrepresentation.
One reader in Kirkland contacted us raising concerns about an event at the Kirkland Urban development on Nov. 2, stating some of the activities at the Fall Fest event misappropriated traditions from Dia De Los Muertos.
When I reached out to Kirkland Urban about it, I received the following statement from Andrea C. M. Lachmann, director of CBRE, the real estate company that manages the property:
“Kirkland Urban held a Fall Fest event on Saturday, Nov. 2 that was free for all local families to attend and enjoy. The event included face painting, arts and crafts and live music. We received an overwhelmingly positive response from guests, who were pleased to find a free, family-friendly event in the heart of Kirkland.”
I followed up, asking whether the activities such as the face painting and skull painting were related to or based off of Dia De Los Muertos but did not receive further comment.
Spinner, Jimenez and Yusuf all said in the cases of cultural events, it is important to work with and support people from that particular culture.
Yusuf said in an ideal world, people will be responsible and do their research into what they are promoting. She said it’s important to listen to people and that a lot of harm can be done and is done if it’s not coming from a place of respect.
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at firstname.lastname@example.org.