Dressed in all black, a woman holding a photo of a young girl bowed her head during a vigil for peace put on during the Walker’s Square Point Dia De Los Muertos celebration. The girl in the photo was Izabel Laxamana, a 13-year-old who killed herself after sending a suggestive selfie to a boy and was punished by her father, who cut off all of her long hair while filming it. The video, which blatantly demeaned her sexuality, was sent all around Laxamana’s school. She jumped off a highway bridge the day after.
Huddled under umbrellas and tents on a rainy Milwaukee afternoon were others carrying photos of children with similar stories to Laxamana’s. They came to celebrate the traditional Mexican holiday that honors the dead.Also walking around Walker’s Square Park were men and women carrying hand-painted children’s coffins covered in plastic to avoid water damage from the rain. The coffins represent the American Civil Liberties Union’s efforts to raise awareness for young people that have committed suicide because of bullying.
Julio Guerrero, a volunteer for ACLU, was carrying one of the coffins to bring attention to the nationwide issue.
“Kids are going to school in a culture that isn’t inclusive,” Guerrero said, “It’s leading to suicide and it’s unacceptable.”
Guerrero explained that the ACLU honors a different group of people that have passed each year at the Dia De Los Muertos celebration. Last year, they honored people who were killed by the police. “These suicides are resulting from inadequate education,” said Director of Youth Programming for the ACLU of Wisconsin Emilio DeTorre.
During the vigil of peace at the celebration, there was a prayer specifically for those lost because of bullying due to sexual orientation and gender identity. The dramatic increase in Milwaukee’s murder rate was acknowledged as well, and gatherers counted from one all the way to 125 to represent the large number of homicides in Milwaukee.
Too many have lost their lives because we lack peace was repeated three times during the omniscient congregation under the rain.
Milwaukee’s homicide rate has spiked 76% from 2014, the highest increase in any U.S. city. The officiant initiated a prayer for those of minority groups in the city that have been the highest demographic in murders – 12 Hispanic murders included.
Despite the solemn prayers, Dia De Los Muertos is not a completely depressed event. It really is a festival, which President of the Walker Point Square Association Ivan Mejias made note of.
“It’s a Hispanic way of celebrating Halloween,” Mejias said, “It’s not so much about sorrow, but more of a celebration.”
Mejias described the magnitude of people coming out to celebrate Dia De Los Muertos in Milwaukee, where nearly one out of every eight people is Hispanic or Latino, as the Mexican equivalent of American’s Fourth of July
“We are a high population area of Hispanics,” Mejias said, “(Day of the Dead) is a way to come out and celebrate that.”
Milwaukee’s Dia De Los Muertos celebration attempts to promote cultural understanding while sharing a beautiful, ancient tradition of honoring the dead. The Walker’s Square and Walker’s Point locations have been sharing this Latin holiday for six years.
Dia De Los Muertos originated in Mexico in the pre-Columbian age. The celebration is split into three days of remembrance. Traditionally, Oct 31 is “All Hallows Eve” which acknowledges the spirits of dead children. Nov 1 is “All Saints Day”, when adult spirits supposedly pay a visit to their families. And finally, Nov 2 is “All Souls Day”, when families go to the graves of their loved ones to decorate their tombs with marigolds and pay respects.
This year’s celebration on Saturday included face painting, an annual 5k walk/run, a “Vigil for Peace”, a parade, Aztec dancers, and a closing celebration with piñatas and Tamarind Belly Dancers. Walker’s Square Park was crowded with art vendors, celebrants walking around burning sage, and a non-stop drum and whistle circle.
First-year vendor and Milwaukee resident Yesica Coria was selling homemade art made from cornhusks, traditionally called hojas de maiz. She learned the trade in Mexico two years ago, and after losing her job, decided to make and sell her art in Milwaukee.
Coria was excited to be selling her traditional Mexican art at the Dia De Los Muertos celebration.
“It’s cool to see that people get so involved,” Coria said, “It’s nice to see that American natives come out to observe our traditions.”
Coria’s business has grown, and she is starting to work with Walkers Point residents teaching them how to make flowers from dyed cornhusks.
Others were huddled under awnings selling sugar skulls, hand-painted candles, totilleros, carvings, and hand-crafted jewelry. The face painting stand had a constant line of children and adults wanting to get colorful calavera’s painted on their faces.
These traditions aren’t disappearing among Hispanic youth anytime soon, according to UWM Sophomore Marilu Rebollar, who has been celebrating both Dia De Los Muertos and Halloween since childhood. She looks forward to the traditional Mexican desserts her family prepares each year, including arroz con leche (rice pudding beverage) and conchas/pan dulce (Mexican bread).
“My favorite part of Dia De Los Muertos is getting together with the family and spending time remembering our love ones that have passed away,” Rebollar said, “I like seeing all the decorations, face painting and just seeing how the whole family gets together.”
The drum circle beat-ed away for hours under the freezing rain, surrounded by smiling painted faces. Nothing was going to stop the Walker’s Point neighborhood from honoring their loved ones, their heritage, and those lost because of suicide and homicide.