Day of the Dead

Hundreds of people gathered and marched Friday on Milwaukee’s near south side, honoring the memories of lost loved ones and taking a unified stand against violent death.

Organizer Celeste Contreras chose a timely moment to share this custom with a community in need of a little togetherness. It was three years ago when Contreras brought the holiday ‘Dia de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) to life and to Walker’s Square Park at 9th and Washington. This year, with the parade’s largest crowd yet, there was a scheduled peace vigil remembering just a few of the many Milwaukeeans whose lives were lost this year.

They included victims of the Sikh Temple shooting and a man whose death in police custody has sparked protests, among many others.

Darius Simmons, 14 years old.

Derrick Williams, 22 years old.

Dayana Garcia, 24 years old.

Justin ‘JJ’ Kohen, 28 years old.

Maggie Litwicki, 37 years old.

Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65 years old.

Paramjit Kaur, 41 years old.

Suveg Singh Khattra, 84 years old.

Prakash Singh, 39 years old.

Ranjit Singh, 49 years old.

Sita Singh, 41 years old.

Each one had remembrance ofrendas (altars) created by people they had never met. One of the helpers was Anna Contreras.

Anna Contreras’ family is from Mexico and her daughter, Celeste, never could shake that cultural stronghold. Anna, or ‘Mom-ager’ to her daughter, has assisted Celeste turn what was once an idea into a community builder.

“She was traveling in Thailand and she asked me why she was there,” Anna said. “She said she should be in Mexico. So, that’s where she went.”

While in the midst of her eight month backpacking tour throughout Central America, Celeste lived through a season of El Dia de los Muertos in Guanajuato, Mexico.

“Being a part of such a deep festival and cultural event I knew Milwaukee could do it too,” Celeste said. “I started Pachamama Arte and started to get involved with the ofrendas at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. I wanted more!”

That was 2004.

Eight years later that vision is manifest with face painting, warm coffee on cool nights, traditional Mexican dancers, and most importantly, healing for neighbors.

Diego Heredia is a member of MATC’s Latino Student Organization, a group that volunteered its time for an entire month before the event. They’ve been assisting Contreras ever since this event began three years ago.

“We dedicated our ofrenda to Derrick Williams and assisted Grant Elementary,” Heredia said. “We are just part of the community that had interest in the celebration.”

Twelfth District Supervisor Peggy Romo West also stressed the significance of honoring those who were lost to violence this year.

“This year’s parade was so special because of the people that we honored,” Romo West said. “We had the families of Darius Simmons, JJ Kohen, Dayana Garcia, and Maggie Litwicki all participating.”

There has been no shortage of heart-breaking murders for a city that has been referred to as ‘Kill-waukee.’ As a result, mourners turned out in numbing temperatures.

“It was worth it, all of this was even if I can’t feel my face right now,” said Rick Kohen, father of Justin Kohen, who was fatally stabbed while leaving his apartment in April. “I’m a Jewish guy from the suburbs and this community gave me so much. Something needs to be said about that.”

As the winter night fully settled in, many people walked across the street to the Latino Arts Gallery at the United Community Center, 1028 S. 9th street.

Inside it was the opening night for their newest exhibit: Day of the Dead Ofrendas – which will show through November 16th. This gallery is one of the first places Contreras displayed her art and it is still a community attraction today.

The ofrendas, usually completed by family or friends, holds personal memorabilia that signified what the deceased enjoyed while alive. At UCC’s gallery of ofrendas, visitors find tamale husks, sugar cookies, old western movies and of course, rosaries and marigolds.

Rob Sanchez is one of the local artists who contributed an ofrenda to the local gallery. Sanchez’s ofrendas were in honor of his grandparents – two grandmothers and a grandfather. He painted portraits before and after his workdays with anticipation of showcasing his work in the gallery that he has helped out in the past.

In honoring the dead, Sanchez also decided it was time to live life to the fullest.

“I proposed to (my girlfriend) tonight because I’ve never met my grandmother from my mother’s side,” Sanchez said. “I thought it would be a pleasure to do it in spirit.”

Sanchez says his mother and great grandmother were also at the exhibit for the proposal. He called it “woman power.”

And with a little open space left on the schedule Friday night, the center’s own Mariachis Juvenil performed a musical concert with the Emmy-nominated Mexican folk band, A Flor de Piel.

The Mariachis Juvenil, led by professional musician, Dinorah Marquez, has become the soul of Bruce Guadalupe Middle School. The strings program began ten years ago and is always composed of students from the school. The children’s commitment to Marquez’s teachings is obvious.

This night with Westosha Central High School visiting from Salem Wis., the Juvenils put into practice the theme of the night: community. With music in the air, they walked over to their new friends, took them by their hands and gave them free salsa lessons.

From the first time the Westosha students moved their hips, they would be in the aisles dancing any chance they had – and many more would follow on this night.

Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday in Mexico and has been observed across the globe from Asia to Africa. The event works because it puts death in front of people and reminds people of their frailty, traditions, and need for one another.

And as people prayed together and shared face paint, the memories of what people lost brought them closer together.

As Contreras said, “tonight, there were smiles to spare.”


There was another prayer/peace vigil just five days after this event. The very next night after Dia de los Muertos, Mariano Lopez, 45, was fatally beaten along the path the parade walked the night before. Lopez, a father of five, was described as an “awesome grandfather” and “mellow and easy-going.” There have been no arrests for the crime so far.