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New Haven’s Día de los Muertos parade honors tradition and lives lost

Jose Antonio Armas lost family members in Mexico during the pandemic, and when his mother passed away, he couldn’t return to his homeland to bury her because of his immigration status.

“Even though it’s been 25 years since I’ve been in the U.S. and I haven’t been able to see them again, the altar, the pictures that we’ve designed gives me some hope that they’ll be here today to enjoy with us,” Armas said in Spanish.

He was one of hundreds of people who gathered for a Day of the Dead celebration in New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood Saturday. For 11 years, Unidad Latina en Acción, an immigrant rights organization, has coordinated the festival intending to preserve and broaden cultural traditions.

Inside the warehouse at 26 Mill St., papier-mâché dog skeletons and skulls painted with colorful flowers greeted participants. On the ceiling were two rows of papel picado, a bright decorative paper with detailed designs. It decorates an altar filled with pictures of people who’ve passed away.

For several weeks, artists and volunteers prepared art and decorations for the Día de los Muertos Parade. Pedro Lopez traveled from Jocotenango, Guatemala, to lead art workshops with New Haven’s Latino community. People from Peru, Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago and other countries painted their faces and stopped by the altar in the warehouse.

“We all have a different way of commemorating our departed, but in the end, it’s the same objective ... to remember them,” Lopez said. “Either with an altar, an offering, incense or candles.”

Lopez says the tradition is also about reviving elements of heritage and identity. In Guatemala, people design colorful barriletes -- giant circular kites that are flown on Nov. 1 and 2, creating a link to communicate with those who have died. He says their goal is to continue to observe the elements of indigenous understanding of death as a transition from the material world to the spiritual one.

Organizers have also dedicated previous altars to lives lost along the U.S.-Mexico border and beyond. Lopez says these elements are reflected in the art created for the parade.

“One of the first pieces that were created 11 years ago was a train that represents ‘La Bestia’ or ‘The Beast,’ a network of freight trains that travels from Mexico to the United States and has claimed the lives of many migrant brothers and sisters,” Lopez said.

As the celebration took off, a band of mariachi youth sang melodies as people young and old transformed into skeletons with painted faces, putting together the final touches to start the parade.

Katherine Flores, 13, walked the parade with one of the 23 skeleton puppets created for the event. Here, too, the celebration brings new meaning. Each skeleton represents lives lost to violence in the city of New Haven — some cases still waiting to be solved.

“I have a skeleton with me, and she represents the Day of the Dead. It’s a typical Mexican dress, a gown that they usually wear in Mexico as well with a scarf and details that we drew onto the skull,” she said.

Flores says that though she’s never been to Mexico, it’s traditions like these that keep her culture alive.

As the parade made its way through Fair Haven, Ines Vidals stood outside her bridal shop with excitement. She says the festivities fill her with hope.

“It is wonderful because people are getting back to normal,” Vidals said.

Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Brenda covers the Latino/a, Latinx community with an emphasis on wealth-based disparities in health, education and criminal justice.

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