Danielle Benavidez gently lifted a delicate skull carved from hardened sugar. She nodded toward a wooden table sprinkled with confectioner’s dust. An array of bony figures with tiny outstretched arms rested in neat rows.
“These are my sugar babies.” Benavidez said. She pressed a fingernail into the base of the skull. “My students will fill their cradles with little skeletons.”
Benavidez’s class, the fourth and fifth grade at Rio Gallinas School, molded baby cradles out of soft clay, cradles that will decorate an altar they plan to exhibit in the Dia de los Muertos art show at Highland University’s Burris Hall beginning Oct. 15. Sponsored by the NMHU Art Department, the City of Las Vegas, and Casa de Cultura, the show aims to celebrate life by looking death straight in the eye.
“We’re honoring Jesusita Aragon,” explained fifth-grader Jaibo Bailey. “She delivered almost every baby in town.” He wiped drying clay on his jeans. “She’s someone who brought hope to our community and we want to share the stories we’ve collected about her.”
Casa de Cultura’s Miguel Angel grinned as he explained the significance of Dia de los Muertos. “It’s a special day. It’s the day you can say anything — anything — about any public figure. It’s the day we honor everyone in our family and our community who has helped us become who we are. Our ofrendas — altars — are the way we can communicate our love and friendship.”
Burris Hall will hold an eclectic selection of altars designed to share cherished memories and gentle hopes of the community. A series of hanging purple crosses meant to symbolize the atrocities committed against women world-wide will stud the air above roaming visitors. The gut of an emptied television console will display skeletons in period costume commemorating all native people. A “Train of Death” will contain cars filled with skeletons meant to represent the sad deaths of children who attempt to cross the border from Mexico to the United States.
Rio Gallinas fifth grader Briana Castro Malaga likes the scary images of Dia de los Muertos. “We’re filling our cradles with baby skeletons. Jesusita will be a skeleton, too. They’re not real skeletons, just pretend. It’s a way for us to remember Jesusita and all the things she did for the community.”
Members from a variety of school and organizations plan on hosting an altar at the exhibit. The Peace and Justice Committee will create an altar based on the “Death of Freedom.” Six professional artists will fill the tall showcases at Burris Hall with displays honoring Friedo Kahlo and Che Guevara as well as others.
Martha Johnsen, local resident expert on Dia de los Muertos, has been holding free community workshops on how to build your own ofrenda.
Angel lowered his voice to a near-whisper. “The Aztecs would say that you have three kinds of death: the last breath you take, the moment you get buried in the ground, but the final death is the one you want to avoid. Being forgotten. The death of your memory. You want to be kept alive and to keep your family history alive. This is why we celebrate Dia de los Muertos.”
If you go
Dia de los Muertos art exhibit
NMHU Burris Hall
Oct. 15 through Nov. 3. Reception Friday, Oct. 15 from 5 - 7:30 p.m.
Exhibit features art celebrating the Day of the Dead. Call Miguel Angel of Casa de Cultura at 454-6771 for more info