Day of the Dead brings Mexican culture to life

In a dimly lit room, dancers in traditional Mexican attire appear on stage. The men, wearing sombreros and clad in all black; women donning long, flowing vibrant coloured dresses – all with faces painted as death. They begin to move in slow, synchronized steps of La Llarona (The Weeping Woman).

“The legend says where there’s water, they hear her soul crying for her children” says Hilda Panasiuk, dance instructor for the Mexican Folkloric Dance Company. “I incorporated La Llarona into the theme because in the afterlife, she can no longer be with them.”

The Harbourfront Centre at 235 Queens Quay West was host to the seventh annual Day of the Dead festival on Nov. 7 and 8. For Panasiuk, the Day of the Dead festival means more to her than honouring the dead, but an opportunity for her dance company to showcase dances of their native land. She describes the feeling she gets seconds before her dancers perform.

“The moment right before my dancers’ take the stage, after all the preparation, there’s a very hard beating in my heart,” says Panasiuk. “After seeing everything starting to flow, there’s a sense of relaxation, seeing they’re doing exactly what I believe all of them can do.”

The Day of the Dead festival dates back to pre-colonialism Mexico with the native Aztecs; it’s a combination of Catholicism and Aztec religions. The festival honours deceased family members who’ve passed on. In Mexico, the festival runs for two days (one for children, the other for adults), the belief is those who’re gone can comeback to life.

During the festival alters are built where people put the favorite drinks, food or memorabilia of the deceased so when they return on that one night, they can enjoy all the things they had in life.

Michael Tait, programmer for the Day of the Dead festival explains the importance of the festival as well as how it has progressed over the years.

“What the festival does is keep their (deceased) memory alive, there’s a slight bit melancholy but it’s a celebration,” says Tait. “It’s a mixture of joy and religion … and it’s only got bigger, over the weekend we had between 5-6ooo people come through.”

For Maria Alvares said it was important for her to bring her two daughters to the festival to show them a piece of their culture.

I was born and raised in Mexico, we came to Toronto 18 years ago, back then we didn’t have these opportunities,” says Alvares. “It was important to show our children what the music, culture and all of are traditions are about.”