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Decolonizing death

Tulsa’s Day of the Dead Festival builds a bridge, not a wall

Día de los Muertos Festival at Living Arts

When I asked Living Arts of Tulsa director Jessica Borusky if I could interview her for this story, she basically said no. That was my first hint that the Day of the Dead Festival has evolved from previous years.

Instead, she pointed me toward the majority non-white committee, which, she said, is literally running the festival this year. It would be more appropriate to talk to them, in other words, because it’s their hard work that’s going to make it happen—and also, haven’t white people said enough about
this stuff?

That’s how I found myself talking with three indigenous North Americans—Oklahomans for Equality program director Jose Emmanuel Vega, director of telatúlsa (Tulsa’s Latino Theater Company) Tara Moses, and designer Val Esparza—watching the real-time process of decolonizing a traditional Mexican holiday.

Día de los Muertos is indubitably a celebration, a joyous feast honoring those who have gone to the other side. But there’s more to it than a party with sugar skulls and mariachi music. Decolonizing this festival doesn’t mean “white people are no longer welcome, since you’ve appropriated our 3,000-year-old traditions into a pastiche of Halloween.” And it doesn’t mean “Mexicans only.” Quite the contrary: The idea is to make everyone, from every culture, welcome at the Día de los Muertos table.

Esparza noted that this year’s festival theme is “the bridge”—between life and death, between cultures, and between individuals within those cultures. “Día de los Muertos is a huge part of Mexican culture, but there are other cultures that celebrate the same thing in similar ways,” he said. “We’re saying, here are the traditions, and this is what we want to do with them. What do you want to do with them?”

“We want to bring back the authenticity and make it educational,” Vega said. “Make people aware what every color means and why it is used. Talking about bridges is a great way to build connection.”

White Westerners might have successfully shoved death into the closet, but many cultures celebrate it wholeheartedly as the mother of all mysteries. Living Arts aims to bring everyone into more awareness of cross-cultural connections with regard to celebrations of death, Moses said. “Although it’s a Mexican holiday rooted in the indigenous Aztec people, we want to bring in others who don’t have a [Latinx] background, or may have that background but may not be as connected to it as others, or may be interested and want to learn more, in a very welcoming environment.”

“Appropriation comes from a lack of education,” she continued. “With this event, people can learn how they connect with the tradition and how they can do it respectfully because they’re educated about how to do so. And also, it’s about who we’re welcoming.”

For the first time this year, the Day of the Dead Festival will extend over two days. The first night, Nov. 1, will be the festival as it has always happened, where a $5 admission fee gets you in to see the altars that people in the community have created to honor their deceased loved ones, shop with the many merchants, eat the excellent food, and soak in a celebration of life between two worlds.

The second night will happen on First Friday, so patrons of the art walk can come right in to the festival for free. Vendors and altars will be there as on the first night, with the addition of short excerpts on the hour from telatúlsa’s “Hamlet: el principe de Denmark,” a bilingual Spanish/English production featuring an all-indigenous and Latinx cast and set during Día de los Muertos.

After the festival, Living Arts will offer ongoing educational events to deepen the connections. Informational details will be on display in the gallery, exploring the traditional Mexican imagery in the altars and artwork. Events will feature a movie night, a craft night, and a facilitated roundtable discussion about the decolonization of death—not just with regard to Día de los Muertos, but also intersectionally with other individuals, cultures, and communities. Full performances of the bilingual “Hamlet” will happen at Living Arts in the evenings, with tickets at $15 for a 90-minute production in the round.

“Día de los Muertos is everywhere in the culture today,” Esparza said. “We’re taking that basic affirmation and arming people with all the things they would need to contribute in the future, so there’s not a barrier.

“How does a black person take this holiday and apply their own culture to it, and make an altar with relics of their culture in their own way? I would love to see that. That’s as American as it gets.”

Fewer walls. More bridges. That’s the heart of this year’s Day of the Dead Festival and its commitment to the idea that authenticity, accessibility, and inclusivity go hand in hand.

“We’re all going towards death,” Esparza said. “We’re all skeletons. We’re all the same in the end, crossing the same bridge. So what can we do to lower the barriers so more people can get involved?”

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