Seize the dia

Dia de los Muertos returns

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Gabriela Pickett, a Dia de Los Muertos Dayton organizer, and her husband stroll the streets during the event last year. Dia de Los Muertos will take place Nov. 1; photo: Bill Franz

Life, love and loss. These are things that affect us all. Death doesn’t care about your ethnic background, religion or economic status. Sometimes it doesn’t even take your age into account. And while some may run from death or brush aside grief, a group at Missing Peace Art Space is choosing to take a different approach, through the Mexican traditional holiday Dia de Los Muertos—Day of the Dead.

“In Mexican culture, death is accepted as a culmination of a life,” Missing Peace Curator Gabriela Pickett says. “Even though they’re gone, their persona and what they meant to us is still alive.”

And that’s what Dia de Los Muertos embraces—it is a day for people to remember their loved ones in a celebratory way. To acknowledge their memory and their legacy. To eat, drink, dance and celebrate all that was good about the person that’s no longer with them.

“It’s cathartic,” explains MB Hopkins, an artist and the mastermind behind Dayton’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration. “It’s taking a day and focusing on that person. You’re remembering them, and it’s a healing thing.”

Hopkins was first introduced to the holiday 30 years ago when she saw an image of a dancing skeleton (google “day of the dead,” and you’ll see many images of elaborately decorated skulls called “sugar skulls” and smiling skeletons).

“People think of skeletons as scary and morbid. I thought, ‘What is this dancing about?’” Hopkins recalls.

The more she learned about the celebration, the more she wanted to take part. And four years ago, it went from a personal celebration to a Dayton-wide event. So she came to her friend Gabriela, who grew up of Mexican descent, and said, “Let’s just try it.”

Pickett admits she was a little hesitant, wondering who in the Dayton area would be interested in the holiday that originated in Mexico (it is now celebrated in much of Latin America, the West Coast and border states). Both of the ladies and all the volunteers were pleasantly surprised, though, when the first Dia de Los Muertos celebration brought 300 people, with only a small percentage being Hispanic.

They decided that day it would become an annual event. The numbers continued to swell, bringing in about 450 people in 2014. This year, more than 600 are expected to attend the festivities.

“It’s a community event,” Pickett emphasizes. “It brings people from different backgrounds together. We have all lost a loved one and all went through the healing and mourning.”

A parade starts the celebration, with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley as the parade champion, or grand marshal. The parade will go from Fifth and Jefferson Streets through the Oregon District. Local musician Kelly Morelock will set the beat and lead the drumming for the parade, the Orgullo Mexicano dancers will be walking in the parade and performing at the gallery and the Dia de Los Muertos crew will be handing out bamboo sticks to parade walkers.

“You tap the sticks and it sounds like bones,” Hopkins says. “It goes click-click-click and, suddenly, it sounds like music.”

Some people come already in costume. Some parade walkers get their faces painted in sugar skull-style right before the parade at special booths the Dia de Los Muertos Dayton crew sets up. The colorful entourage ends at the Missing Peace Art Space at Fifth and S. Dutoit Streets. There, the celebration will include a DJ and dancing, tamales, cocoa, food from PA’s Pork and special art exhibition in the art space.

What makes this party specific to Dia de Los Muertos is the presence of ofrendas, or altars. Altars are normally about the size of a cigar box or shoebox and contain mementos of the person you are remembering. Items might be a photo, food they liked, something they used in their work or a game they liked to play.

“It could be a person’s pipe, a deck of cards, a hammer—whatever defined that person,” Pickett explains.

The original idea behind the altars was that it invites the soul of the dead person to come and join the party. Hence why you will see a plethora of marigolds—it was believed that the marigold’s strong scent helped draw out the souls of the dead.

Whatever your belief concerning souls, ghosts and the afterlife, making an altar to honor the person you love can be very healing, the women say.

“I lost my father the first year we did this—he passed away three months prior to the event,” Pickett shares. “I can really attest to that healing aspect. That loss and memory is very intimate, but you’re coming together.”

Although the Mexican tradition is altars for people only, the women have seen people bring altars for pets as well. Sometimes the altars are for a group of people. One year, there was a special one made to honor victims of gun violence in the Dayton area. This year, a mom who lost her son to a heroin overdose is spearheading an altar in the gallery to remember all victims of heroin overdoses.

Missing Peace will also have a community altar set up outside with candles available for lighting in remembrance.

“At Dia de Los Muertos, I turn my head one way and there’s someone lighting a candle like you would in a church, and it’s a real touching special moment,” Hopkins says. “I turn my head the other way and someone is dancing and having a party at the same time —but it’s not disjointed.”

Dia de Los Muertos Dayton would like to thank their all-volunteer crew and the following sponsors: Human Relations Council, Welcome Dayton, Routsong Funeral and Cremation Services, Routsong Pet Loss Services, The Flower Shoppe, The Dayton Art Institute, K12 Gallery for Young People and Missing Peace Art Space Dia de Los Muertos starts Sunday, Nov. 1 with the parade at 2:30 p.m. at 200 W. Jefferson St. Missing Peace Art Space, located at 234 S. Dutoit St., is accepting altars ahead of time Friday, Oct. 30 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 31 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The art space will also be available from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30 for an open workspace for people to come and work on their altars, with someone available to offer help and feedback if requested. For more information, please visit “Dia de Muertos Dayton” on Facebook.

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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