colorful day of the dead festival brings community to west side neighborhoods

Skull-faced children and adults danced through the streets of the Gordon Square Arts District last Saturday afternoon, followed by tall, cadaverous puppets and altars overflowing with flowers and other remembrances of those who have passed on to the next realm.

There was nothing to be afraid of, however; the macabre and colorful carrying-on was in celebration of the Day of the Dead, a Latin-American holiday that pays joyful homage to lost relatives. El Día de los Muertos is meant to be more reflective than sad or scary, says Hector Castellanos, the event's coordinator and artistic director.  

This year's Cleveland-centric Day of the Dead festival drew a large crowd to the arts district on a chilly fall afternoon. Attendees enjoyed a parade, music, folk art and food truck fare. Castellanos doesn't have attendance figures yet, but the event has drawn between 1,200 and 1,400 people each of the last two years.

"People came from all over the region,"  he says. "There was a lot of energy and passion."

Gordon Square has hosted the Day of the Dead celebration for five years, with the festival marching through Cleveland's East Side the three years before that. While Cleveland's Latino population was well represented last weekend, many non-Latinos came for the festivities as well. There were many hands involved in building floats and making puppets. Area businesses got in on the fun, too, decorating storefronts with skulls and other symbols of the ancient holiday.

"The whole neighborhood got involved," says Castellanos, a native of Guatemala. "It's a powerful event."

Cleveland artist Bruce Buchanan built an altar representing the surrounding West Side neighborhood and the people who once lived there. The shrine is decorated with rows of colorful houses fronted by abstract skeletons, while tiny flags scrawled with the names of deceased former residents are placed on the alter along with offerings of food, flowers and candles.

"We're helping to build the neighborhood now, but these people built the neighborhood in the first place," says Buchanan. "That's something we should respect."

Meanwhile, Castellanos already is planning to make next year's  celebration bigger and better. "It's spiritual and educational, with so much history behind it," he says. "It also brings the community together, and that's one of the most important aspects for me."

SOURCES: Hector Castellanos, Bruce Buchanan
WRITER: Douglas J. Guth
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