Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that takes place in early November and focuses on honoring and celebrating the lives of the deceased. In Mexico and throughout the world, the holiday – similar to All Saints Day, Samhain and Halloween – is celebrated by building ofrendas (altars), eating sweet treats (primarily skull shaped), dressing in colorful costumes, creating colorful art and attending or participating in parades.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of Milwaukee’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) parade and celebration, which takes place Saturday, Nov. 1 from noon to 5 p.m. in Walker Square Park, between 9th, 10th, Mineral and Washington Streets.
The free event will feature art projects and face painting from noon until 2 p.m.; a one-mile sidewalk parade / procession at 2 p.m. (the parade starts and finishes in Walker Square); and the Aztec dancers at 3 p.m. followed by a vigil for peace.
Milwaukee’s Celeste Contreras has organized the parade since its inception in 2010. Contreras – who is also studying art education at Alverno College – spends much of her time throughout the year planning the parade. She also conducts many workshops in ofrenda building, printing and the making of masks, puppets, skull shakers and more.
OnMilwaukee.com recently sat down for a chat with Contreras about the Dia de los Muertos parade, hitchhiking in Central America, art, family and more.
OnMilwaukee.com: There’s a fundraiser for the Dia de los Muertos parade and event, right?
Celeste Contreras: Yes! That’s new this year. On Saturday, Oct. 25, there will be an auction at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts (WPCA) from noon to 5 p.m.
More than 20 local artists made ofrendas and they will be auctioned off. WPCA’s Dia de los Muertos show will be up, too, so people can stop in and check it all out, maybe leave with an ofrenda of their own.
OMC: You built the mini wooden ofrendas being auctioned off at WPCA and gave them to local artists to decorate?
CC: Yes, it took me two years to build them all – I made about 500 – and I gave out more than 100 this year. Not just for the fundraiser, but to anyone who wanted one. I am storing the rest in my basement. My basement is crazy!
OMC: What’s new in the parade this year?
CC: Every year is like a whole new parade and this is what keeps my interest. The parade keeps growing and changing and yet it’s consistent.
This year, the parade – and the events before and after in Walker Square – will take place on a Saturday instead of on a Friday. So many people asked us to move it to a Saturday – people were unable to make it in time after work or because of rush hour traffic – and so we did.
We will also have Home Depot and the Milwaukee Art Museum with us from noon to 2 p.m. Home Depot will build wooden shrines for kids and the museum will have a connected craft and face painting.
OMC: How long is the parade? What is it like?
CC: It’s a mile or less. It’s a sidewalk parade – the streets aren’t closed down – and hundreds of people march in the procession. Everyone is invited to march or to watch. Most people in the parade dress up – I tell people to wear their best clothing or craziest clothing or even a Halloween costume is fine.
People can come to the park and have their face painted for free or wear masks.
Some people carry photos or ofrendas honoring someone who died. There are large puppets and a couple of marching bands, too.
OMC: How similar are Halloween and Dia de los Muertos?
CC: They are different and similar. They both have an element of costume wearing and eating sweets, but Dia de los Muertos is more about celebrating the life of loved ones who passed. It’s truly about honoring and welcoming the spirits, which is the purpose of the ofrenda – to bring the loved one's spirit back for a little while.
OMC: Who will you honor this year?
CC: My friend, Josh, who took his life on March 21, 2014. Also, our cat, Stella. And every year, I honor my grandparents. I have had a lot of death in my life.
OMC: Did you grow up in Milwaukee?
CC: I did. I was born in Texas, but moved here and lived on 27th and Mineral, then in West Allis for a little while, and finally on 28th and Scott just a block from where we’d been before. I graduated in 2001 from the Milwaukee High School of the Arts.
OMC: Are both of your parents Mexican?
CC: My mother is full-blooded Mexican American. She was born and raised in Galveston. My dad was from Oklahoma – I didn’t know him growing up and he passed away – and he was Polish and Blackfoot Cherokee.
My parents met in Dallas on Cinco de Mayo. They were working for the Dallas Morning Times, my mom was a photographer and my dad was a journalist.
OMC: Have you been to Mexico?
CC: I lived in Mexico for a while and other parts of Central America.
OMC: Is that how / when you got interested in Dia de los Muertos?
CC: Actually, I was always fascinated with aspects of it, but it was when I was an exchange student in Thailand the year after I graduated from high school that originally piqued my interest.
In Thailand, I had four host sisters, but only the oldest one was interested in teaching me things. It’s OK, the younger ones just wanted to shop and speak English with me, but my oldest sister was really helpful.
However, she died suddenly in the midst of my year there, on Feb. 15, 2002. She had always had a heart condition, but still, her death was very sudden and unexpected and sad. The funeral was a week long. It ended with a procession down the road – we dropped flowers along the way as we carried her body inside this beautiful casket to a crematorium.
The next day, we went back and we collected her ashes and bones and her glasses and we put it all in a pot and then we went to the river. Some monks were there and did some sort of blessing and then we dropped her in the river and that was the end.
After she was gone, I started asking myself big questions. I started wondering why I, a Mexican / Polish American, was in Thailand? I suddenly wanted to go to Mexico. I decided I was going to go home, get a job as a dishwasher and travel.
And so, I came back to Milwaukee, got a job at Beans and Barley, saved $5,000 and went on the road from 2003 to 2004. I started out in San Francisco and went to Guanajuato, Mexico where I stayed with some students from the United States and the Czech Republic who were studying at the university.
I met this really cute Czech dude and he and I took off traveling together. He taught me how to hitchhike. We picked up a street dog and got a job at a goat cheese farm and some other farms and we worked and cleaned so we could stay at different places.
I made my way down to Costa Rica and finally, I flew back to the United States.
But during my time in Mexico, I went to an international art festival during Day of the Dead and it was really beautiful and inspiring.
When I came back to Milwaukee in 2004, I went back to Beans and Barley where I met my husband, a quiet line cook that made me say, "Who is THAT?!" We have been married for 10 years now. We both still work there.
Also, after I came back, a woman who I had gone to high school with asked if I was interested in making something for the Dia de los Muertos show at the Latino Arts Gallery. And that’s when it really all started.
I went on to make ofrendas at both WPCA and the Latino Arts Gallery, and in 2010, the first parade happened. My dream had always been to have a parade. I mean, they have one in Portland where they have almost no Mexican people and we didn’t have one here? So I teamed up with someone and we co-founded the parade.
OMC: Do you get paid to organize the parade?
CC: I do not. The WPCA is our fiscal sponsor and they are wonderful. They mean everything. They’re our insurance and they donate money to the parade, but the money is used to pay the Aztec dancers, who in my opinion, are crucial to the parade. I buy all of my supplies out of pocket or I find them or dumpster dive for them.
OMC: Does the planning of the parade overtake your life?
CC: Yes, but I totally chose this. The day after the parade, maybe an hour, I’m already on the computer planning the next one. It’s my "baby," but I don’t look at it as my parade – it’s Milwaukee’s parade.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.