Life and Death

Life and Death

A warehouse on Mill Street in Fair Haven is lined with skulls and bones, but, believe it or not, they have nothing to do with Halloween. They’re part of a collection of colorful, larger-than-life puppets waiting to march in the ninth annual Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, parade in Fair Haven.

“In ancient cultures in our countries, the skulls and the skeleton is the representation of life and death, that connection between both,” explains artist-in-residence Pedro Lopez through interpreter John Lugo, who directs and co-founded the organization behind the parade, Unidad Latina en Acción. “We don’t see the dead as a tragedy… It’s clear that death is an inevitable part of life and is the way that you transcend from the material to the spiritual… skull is what we have inside and what we are going to be. This is our relation with our ancestors.”

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For the past three years, Lopez has left his native Guatemala and come to New Haven for several weeks to lend his expertise to the parade, crafting puppets out of papier-mâché and plastic wrap on bamboo frames. Many of the materials used to create, paint and dress the puppets are recycled, found on the street or in dumpsters: cardboard, cloth, even a fur stole that’s wrapped around one puppet’s neck. Discarded election signs are painted over in black to advertise the event.

The parade has grown over the years both in size and stature. The first effort back in 2011 was delayed by an October snowstorm, but that didn’t stop the celebration. About 200 people gathered at Bregamos Community Theater to march inside, dance to live music, eat and party until six o’clock the next morning. When revelers finally did get the puppets outside, they discovered some of them were so tall they were in danger of hitting the trees and the telephone wires. “But we did it,” Lugo says. “We marched for a few blocks.”

The roots of the parade go back even further. Unidad Latina en Acción, a New Haven group dedicated to social justice issues affecting the Latin community including workplace intimidation and abuse, immigrant rights and sanctuary from deportations, was founded in 2002. (Its current concerns include ending the detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement of Wilbur Cross High School student Mario Aguilar Castañon and advocating for a Sanctuary Ordinance for the city.) But the seed of the annual parade was planted in 2006, when a mobilization of 5,000 marchers in New Haven made Unidad think about how to keep the momentum going, Lugo says.

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For a few years, the organization created Day of the Dead altars on the Green to draw attention to deaths at America’s southern border. Then, in 2010, artist Stephanie Loeb helped them create three puppets for a May Day march supporting immigrant workers. Drawing their inspiration from other cultural parades in New Haven including the Freddy Fixer, St. Patrick’s Day and Puerto Rican Day parades, ULA figured Día de los Muertos could be its opportunity to shine.

More than just a celebration of ancestors, the parade also highlights political issues important to the Latin community. Stored in the warehouse alongside glittery skulls with flowers in their eye sockets and skeletons dressed in brightly colored shirts and dresses are more somber representations. A train full of skeletons commemorates La Bestia (The Beast), a dangerous freight train route migrants use to hitch rides through Mexico to the United States. A border wall in 10 black sections depicts skeletons attempting to scale its height. The plan for this year’s new puppets is sketched on a sheet of butcher paper taped to the warehouse wall. Lopez plans to build a puppet of the Earth in flames, with a sinister figure bearing a torch and wearing an Uncle Sam hat. The protest addresses “how we’re destroying the environment through this system that just cares about the profits, so it’s not just the destruction of the environment, but the destruction of the people, the cultures, and the traditions,” Lopez says through Lugo.

Day of the Dead parades like New Haven’s aren’t all that common, Lugo says. Puppet artist Hector Hernandez, a New Haven resident originally from Mexico, remembers the holiday at home as a time when his grandfather would build an altar to his grandmother, who had died many years earlier. “He used to put some flowers, he put some food, a picture of her,” he recalls. “I love this tradition.”

Lopez describes New Haven’s parade as a more “magnificent” version of local parades in which people bring flowers and food to cemeteries to remember and honor their dead. In Guatemala, Día de los Muertos is celebrated with giant kites representing “the connections between the dead ones and the people who are still living on this earth,” Lugo explains. A kite built by Lopez was on display in the Yale Medical School cafeteria leading up to this year’s parade.

With Lopez and Hernandez leading the way, creation of the puppets is a community effort, Lugo says, and everyone is invited—Latin or not—to put on the finishing touches and learn how to manipulate the puppets just before the parade steps off from 26 Mill Street at 5 p.m. or so on Saturday. Anyone can march or just watch from the sidelines as the parade weaves its way through Fair Haven to Bregamos at 491 Blatchley Avenue, where an after-party will feature live music, dancing, a DJ and food. For newcomers, Lugo emphasizes that it’s not Halloween, so if you plan to join in, please don’t come in costume. If you miss the festivities, you can see the puppets themselves—once they get post-parade repairs—at Artspace from November 14 to 24.

One intended message of the parade, which celebrates this “very indigenous, very ancient” tradition, Lugo says, is that people from South and Central America belong here in the United States. He hearkens back 500 years to a time when there were no borders, and people were free to travel as they pleased before the land was summarily claimed by European explorers. “We are also defending … our right not to be called illegal immigrants because we’re natives from this continent, and we just like traveling as we have been for thousands of years,” Lugo says.

Ultimately, the parade is one way to deliver that message of resilience and perseverance. The border wall segment “puppets” will be carried again in this year’s parade, delivering a similar message. Painted on their side is the saying: Nos quisieron enterrar sin saber que eramos semilla.

They wanted to bury us, without knowing we were seeds.

9th annual Día de los Muertos parade and festival
November 2, 2019
Painting/preparation: 4pm at 26 Mill St, New Haven
Parade: 5pm, leaving from 26 Mill St
After-party: 7pm at Bregamos Community Theater
ULA Website | Facebook Event

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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