Burning incense sat at the foot of three altars Thursday in the International Institute’s Hall of Nations, each covered with photos of people.
The altars were the centerpiece of this Día de los Muertos celebration. Day of the Dead is a holiday popular in Mexico when people honor loved ones who have died. It is typically celebrated between Oct. 28 and Nov. 2.
The mood was respectful but not solemn. Amid the photos were ofrendas, or offerings to the spirits. Electric candles sat near yellow marigolds, toy skulls and favorite foods of the departed, including a plate of tamales and two bottles of Coca-Cola.
On the floor nearby, figurines of Mexican wrestlers stood on a toy wrestling ring. Some of the women in attendance wore colorful dresses, with arm and leg coverings that gave the appearance of a skeleton’s limbs.
“Some people are scared because we use a lot of skeletons,” said artist Leticia Seitz, who organized the event and hopes it will become an annual tradition at the International Institute. “But the Mexicans, we have an intimate relationship with the dead. Obviously it’s sad because we remember people who have parted already. But someday we’re going to be on the altar, too. So we show respect, but we have fun with it.”
The event was the International Institute’s first Day of the Dead observance. It’s one of the first efforts in an initiative the institute launched last month to better connect with Latino communities.
The organization’s leaders want to attract to St. Louis some of the 330,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua whose legal status the Biden administration affirmed in June.
“We felt that it made sense for us, trying to engage the Latino audience, and to embrace the Latino culture in every sense of the word,” said International Institute President and CEO Arrey Obenson. “And with this being something that is really characteristic of Mexican and Latino culture, we thought that we should host it here as a demonstration of our desire to really embrace multiculturalism.”
The event included a traditional dance and a performance by musician Maria Saenz, who played acoustic guitar and sang in Spanish and English. Attendees snacked on candy and sipped water and soda.
The chance to celebrate the holiday with other Mexican Americans and an authentic altar was a big attraction for Saenz.
“I live in O’Fallon, but I had to beat the traffic and come out here and be a part of it,” she said. “It’s camaraderie, to share in each other’s pain of those we’ve lost and to share in the joy of celebrating that they existed.”
See photos below from the International Institute's program and a related event held by the Missouri History Museum by photojournalist Tristen Rouse: