I headed down to 10th and National last night for Día de los Muertos and found Milwaukee's South Side to be very much alive. Walker's Point Center for the Arts was packed with people there to check out the altars and “ofrendas” created by artists to represent their personal reflections on Day of the Dead. The United Community Center (UCC) likewise opened their Día de los Muertos ofrendas exhibit Friday evening.
Though both exhibits primarily reflected the Latino culture from which the festival originates, the shows also interestingly included altars created by African Americans and European Americans. The altars personally commemorate loved ones who have passed on, but also honor leaders such as Father Groppi, artists (Frida Kahlo) and groups of people such as those who have “disappeared” when taken as political prisoners in Central and South America, and those who have died trying to cross the border. Mothers Against Gun Violence had a powerful altar to commemorate those who have been lost to murders and the senseless killing.
The altars were filled with candy skulls, bread, chocolate, pictures, poems, pottery and colorful flowers -- marigolds in particular, as their scent is known to attract the souls of the dead. They are a feast for the eyes and the soul.
The festival was audible as well as visible -- music was also a part of the celebration. I had the pleasure to enjoy the music of “Grupo Mono Blanco” that graced the stage at the UCC. The group plays Son Jarocho, traditional music from the Mexican state of Veracruz. They wore white guayaberas and jeans, topped with simple sombreros -- the clothes of campesinos (country people).
The group played instruments they crafted themselves -- principally the “jaranas,” (small guitars) and the jarocha harp (a small harp lifted up on two legs). Their powerful voices swept over the room and brought with them both the sorrow and happiness with which they celebrate the dead.
Their performance also included traditional dancing that consisted of quite a bit of foot stomping and reminded of a cross between a jig and tap dancing. The show was percussion free, save one song that included a tambourine and a quijada (jaw bone) which was a lot of fun.
The crowd was very receptive and demonstrated their appreciation by throwing out questions and comments to the musicians. For a few songs, those who had enough confidence even danced. It was a form of dance I had never seen before – kind of like hopping and jumping in a line and a circle. It reminded me of Mexican jumping beans.
Jessica Laub was born in Milwaukee in the spring of 1970, thereafter spending her childhood days enjoying the summers on the shores of Lake Michigan and winters at the toboggan chute in Brown Deer Park.
Alas, she moved away to broaden her horizons, and studied out East for a few years at Syracuse University. After a semester "abroad" at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, she graduated with a B.A. in English and advertising.
After college, she worked at Glacier National Park, a ski hill in Steamboat, Col. and organic farms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California.
In 1995, Laub moved to Nicaragua where she worked on community gardens, reforestation and environmental education as a Peace Corps volunteer. While there, she learned to speak Spanish, pay attention to world politics and how to make tortillas.
Laub then returned to Milwaukee to join the ranks of the non-profit sector. Currently, she works at the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) and keeps busy by painting, throwing pots, reading, trying to understand her two-year old son, seeing performances and howling at the moon.