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Honoring the dead

Murphys community celebrates lively remembrance of dead with annual Dia de los Muertos

  • 4 min to read

While downtown Murphys offers many events, only once a year are the dead welcomed back to participate.

On Nov. 2, the town hosted the 10th annual Día de los Muertos, otherwise known as Day of the Dead.

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The free event was organized by the Murphys Business Association, in partnership with the Murphys Community Club, and sponsored by a multitude of local businesses. The celebration featured traditional music, dancing, food, face-painting, handmade crafts, La Catrina and El Catrín pageants for children and adults, and an opportunity to commune with those who have departed.

Many arrived dressed for the occasion, and those who didn’t, often took advantage of several face-painting booths set up along Main Street and in Murphys Community Park.

More than 30 businesses set up ofrendas – altars dedicated to loved ones who have passed away – complete with pictures, candles, food and special items that the departed enjoyed in life.

The sun shone throughout the day, and a gentle breeze played upon hanging ofrenda decorations.

“When the wind blows is supposed to be when they’re visiting,” Angelique Grijalva, of Stockton, said, sitting next to her booth in the park for Art Expressions.

Grijalva chose her attire in honor of her friend Doug, who had enjoyed dressing steampunk.

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“Whenever I dress for Día de los Muertos, my attire is always dedicated to somebody,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many people – percentage-wise – dress up. And they’re a lot more elaborate than I’ve seen before, too.”

Next to her booth, Grijalva had set up an ofrenda for lost loved ones with pictures, candles, marigolds, tea and coffee cake.

“I put out peach tea and coffee cake, because if you want someone to come visit you, what would you offer them,” she said. “You always kind of want to have some kind of delight for them.”

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Grijalva explained the purpose of the holiday.

“The veil goes thin Oct. 31, and that’s when the souls come back. Nov. 1 is Día de los Santos – that’s for the babies – and Nov. 2 is for everybody else. So on Nov. 2, you celebrate everybody. You celebrate your ancestors, your families, your friends – the people closest to you,” she said.

Grijalva’s ofrenda had three tiers.

“The three tiers are the three deaths. Your natural death, when you’re buried, and when you’re forgotten. When you’re forgotten, that’s your true death,” she said.

Grijalva said that she was sure she had already been visited by lost loved ones earlier in the day. A photo of a baby girl was placed on her altar. When the child had died, Grijalva had made a memorial video for her using the song “Greensleeves.”

As Grijalva was putting the finishing touches on her altar, a musician behind her began playing the tune.

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“Today of all days, there are no coincidences. They are with us. They will always live in our hearts, so they are never truly dead,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

As Rondalla Presencia de Amor played traditional music from the gazebo in the park, Rose McHone, of Twain Harte, stood behind a table filled with handmade crafts.

“Everything is handmade by me – handsewn, hand-created, handcrafted,” she said. “It’s all things that are related either to Frida Kahlo, Día de Los Muertos or our Mexican culture.”

McHone said that it was her second year celebrating in Murphys.

“The weather’s always fantastic and I think people get it. They get what this celebration is all about,” she said. “They have the Catrina contest, Mexican music, and it’s just so rich in culture. I just think that Murphys does it right.”

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Nearby, Jasmine Gomez-Zavala, of Tracy, was also selling handmade traditional crafts.

“(It’s my) first time here, and I love that it’s true. At first, I was kind of hesitant, because this is my culture, and I didn’t think it was going to be as on-point, but I really enjoy it. It’s beautiful, too,” she said. “It took awhile to get here, but it was well worth it.”

At 1 p.m., Ballet Folklorico Raíces Mexicanos performed a series of traditional dances from different regions of Mexico. A crowd surrounded the dancers as bright dresses and painted faces moved gracefully in the filtered sunlight.

Afterward, dancing lessons for children and adults were given at the Native Sons Hall on Main Street.

Downtown shops were heavily trafficked by visitors of all ages throughout the day. Many set up elaborate ofrendas for lost loved ones and offered traditional goods.

An ofrenda at Art on Main was dedicated to local artist Martha Wallace.

“She was not only just an artist in our gallery, but she was so fundamental in teaching art to kids throughout our community,” said Susan King, of Murphys, who was working in the studio.

The Hovey Winery set up an ofrenda for founder Chuck Hovey, who passed away earlier this year.

“It’s nice that the Day of the Dead brings some of the original culture of town. In Murphys, everybody thinks of the Irish miners, and the Mexican community kind of gets overlooked,” said Susan Lyneis, of Murphys, who stood behind the bar of the tasting room. “There was a huge Mexican miner population, and I think it’s really nice to honor that part of our culture.”

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Throughout the day, visitors left handwritten notes with names of loved ones and brief messages at a public ofrenda placed on a long picnic table in the park. Following the La Catrina and El Catrín pageant, a medicine woman with the Apache tribe, Leanne Snow Bear, and members of Kalpulli Ketzalkoatl Ehecatl, an Aztec dance group, performed a blessing ceremony for the ofrenda as the sun went down.

“We are going to take all of these names of the ancestors that are loved, and we’re going to put them in a cauldron and light them, and send them up to the Sky World, so that they are all acknowledged in the Sky World. Yes, you are loved; you will never be forgotten; always in our hearts,” Snow Bear said.

A conch shell was blown in the four directions, then up to the heavens and down to the earth. The group slowly circled the table with burning incense in hand, using feathers to waft the smoke over pictures and written notes.

A small fire was lit, and the notes were first smudged with burning incense and then placed one by one into the flames, while the group softly sang.

As the crowd dispersed, several volunteers stayed behind to pick up.

“I think it went really well,” event coordinator Michelle Plotnik said. “I like that it’s a different event than most of the other events in town.”

Catherine Carnahan, longtime volunteer and one of the founders of the event, agreed.

“It’s been 10 years, and I think it gets better every year,” she said.

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Noah Berner has lived in Calaveras County most of his life, and graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in history.

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