There are bones all over the streets of Mexicantown.
At Algo Especial Market on Bagley, white skulls made of sugar and decorated with brightly colored icing sit stacked in the window. On Bagley across I-75, a window at Xochi’s Gift Shop displays assorted skeleton figurines, some striking comical poses. Over on West Vernor, the ceaselessly bustling crew at Mexicantown Bakery has been making loaves of bread decorated with bones of dough and topped with sugar. And up and down the streets, vibrant skull paintings decorate businesses’ windows.
Make no bones about it, this Southwest Detroit neighborhood is getting ready for the estimated thousands who will descend on its streets Nov. 1-2 to experience a bit of Mexican culture in a way they can find nowhere else in Southeast Michigan.
El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is fast becoming a big deal in Mexicantown, thanks in no small part to the organizing and publicity efforts of the Mexicantown Community Development Corp. and the business owners who recognize that in honoring these age-old traditions they can lure more people into their corner of Detroit.
“We have people come in and say, ‘We didn’t know you were here,’” says Sergio Abundis, who finds it ironic because his family has owned the La Jalisciense Tortilla Factory on Bagley for about 60 years.
“Anything that brings people to the area is good,” adds his sister, Norma Abundis-Eshaki.
Rooted in tradition
Dia de los Muertos is a mix of cultures and attitudes. It has tongue-in-cheek humor and fanciful decorations, but also solemnity and honor for the dead; it embraces pre-colonial Mexican traditions but melds them with Catholic doctrine. It’s a mix of the ancient, the historic and the present, the religious and the personal, the comical and the somber.
Dia de los Muertos is rooted, in part, in the Catholic observance of the first two days in November as All Souls Day and All Saints Day – days set aside to honor those who’ve died.
The celebrations differ from region to region in Mexico, but there are several common traditions, says Myrna Segura-Sample, program director for the Mexicantown CDC. For instance, many people construct ofrendas, or altars, in their homes to honor loved ones who’ve died. The altars are decorated with flowers (usually yellow marigolds), papel picado (cut paper banners), candles, religious icons, photographs and other personal artifacts — everything from favorite foods and beverages to pieces of clothing.
Artisans and merchants create and sell skeletal wares to be used in the ofrendas and other celebrations. Pan de los muertos, or bread of the dead, is sweet, sugar-sprinkled bread topped with dough-shaped bones – some even resemble an entire rib cage.
Paper maché and toy calaveras, or skeletons and skulls, often decorate ofrendas. They can be dressed in contemporary outfits and posed in humorous activities – mimicking everything from musicians and brides and grooms to doctors delivering babies and riders on their bikes.
Celebrations in Mexico usually involve a Mass and a family gathering in the cemetery. “They get together to remember their loved ones,” says Patricia Ramirez, a Manager at Mexicantown Bakery, adding that everyone brings something for a feast. “And the one who has a lot of money brings the mariachi.”
Dia in the D
Despite its presence in many parts of Mexico – especially in small towns, Ramirez says — public celebrations of Dia de los Muertos have just started catching on in Detroit.
Dia de los Muertos celebrations are increasing among the area’s Mexican population, Ramirez says, but “it’s not just the Hispanics. More Anglo people are coming here, too.”
Until a few years ago, “it wasn’t that organized,” Segura-Sample says, but the CDC has worked to get more businesses involved in the event, getting them signed on early to put up window displays and ofrendas.
The cooperation has led to a growing infusion of visitors to the Mexicantown for Dia de los Muertos. More and more schools are sending students there, for instance, and this year more than 600 students are coming – not only from city schools, but from as far away as Bowling Green, Ohio, and from many Detroit suburbs. The kids will get a brief presentation from the Mexicantown CDC, and then go off on a self-guided tour through the neighborhoods.
“This is growing,” Segura-Sample says. “We used to call the schools (to invite them), and now they call us.”
She says businesses have also taken notice of the influx of Dia de los Muertos participants. They, too, have started calling Segura-Sample months ahead of time with their plans, when she used to have to rally the troops.
Mexicantown’s celebration this year includes fiestas and many elaborate ofrendas on display, as well as window art decorations painted by artists and children, an array of Day of the Dead goods for sale, and the self-guided neighborhood tour laid out by the CDC.
The holiday has also become a chance for Mexicantown to show off its lesser-known businesses to visitors – including people who might have a favorite restaurant they frequent, but don’t get out and explore what else the area has to offer.
Abundis-Eshaki opens her La Jalisciense Tortilla Factory – with its warm, comforting smell of masa (corn flour) and whirring tortilla-pressing machines – to the Dia de los Muertos crowds. She says she’s gotten many return customers from the holiday’s tours. “They see new options they haven’t considered before,” she says, adding that the daytime visits let people get more comfortable with the Mexicantown geography.
For Susy Villarreal-Garza, a lifelong Mexicantown resident whose family has run Tamaleria Nuevo Leon since 1957, Dia de los Muertos is a chance to shatter misconceptions about the neighborhood to outsiders who don’t always know how vibrant and alive the area is. “Once you come in here, you are like, ‘it’s great,’” she says.
And if they return some day for tamales, fresh tortillas, or something sweet from the bakery, then that’s even better, business owners say. And it seems to be working.
Sugar skulls fly off the shells at Algo Especial, and they’ve already reordered to replenish their supply once. And Mexicantown Bakery will sell at least 2,000 loaves of pan de muertos when all is said and done, and the numbers grow every year, Ramirez says.
With so much attention, she says the bakery will be diligent to keep things immaculate and shelves stocked. Ramirez says Dia de los Muertos is an opportunity to show off the neighborhood, her corner of Detroit, and show these visitors “who we are, and we are very proud.”
For more on Mexicantown Community Devleopment Corp.’s Dia de los Muertos celebration, go to:
Some of the organizations planning ofrendas:
Casa de Unidad:
Bagley Housing Corp.:
Detroit Hispanic Development Corp.:
St. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church:
Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church
All photographs copyright Dave Krieger