Everything You Need To Know About El Dia de los Muertos in Detroit

October 30, 2012, 10:41 PM

Lately it seems like El Dia de los Muertos has been infiltrating mainstream culture, bringing in Halloween from the rear for a sort of spookshow double-header.

But where Halloween is all about the scare (and sexy-anythings), El Dia de los Muertos—The Day of the Dead—is meant to be more joyous and fun. Traditionally a Mexican celebration that coincides with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2), Day of the Dead also just so happens to butt up against the pagan-rooted celebration of All Hallows’ Eve—Halloween.

And wonderful cultural melting pot that we are here in metro Detroit, we’re slowly but surely combining the two. (Regulars at Theatre Bizarre can attest that the most oft-donned costume is an interpretation of the sugar skull.)

Day of the Dead is intended to be a celebration of the dearly departed. Tradition holds that families and friends visit their loved ones’ grave and also create altars in their homes to welcome the deceased. These altars are called ofrendas (offerings), and are decorated with colorfully-painted sugar skulls, marigolds, toys and sweets. The sugar skulls themselves (which can actually be made of sugar or something more substantial like papier mache) are pieces of art carefully painted in bright, cheery colors in often painstaking detail, and the sugar skull imagery – white face, black all around the eyes, black lines along the mouth mimicking a bare skull – is quickly becoming a part of popular culture.

This Day of the Dead there are plenty of places around metro Detroit to celebrate regardless of your cultural heritage or religious beliefs. Think of it as a second shot at Halloween (but maybe leave the sexy nun costume at home).

Thursday, November 1 through Friday, November 2
Dia de los Muertos at Imperial, Ferndale (Free)

Imperial, Ferndale’s honky-tonk hipster rockabilly bar-cum-L.A.-style taco shack, is hosting a two-day-long Day of the Dead celebration and art auction. They tapped some of Detroit’s biggest names in the arts community – heavy-hitters with international prominence like Niagara, Jerry Vile, Mark Arminski and Glenn Barr – as well as local favorites like Kill Taupe and over a dozen local tattoo artists (the staff’s tats at Imperial are most assuredly portable collections of art) to decorate papier mache “sugar” skulls for a charity auction. There will be 11 large skulls up for auction as well as 18 smaller ones designed by local tattoo artists.

“We knew when we started Imperial that we always wanted to have events that focused on charities, because one of the things hardest hit in education is art programs at schools,” says Sharon LaVoisne, a partner at Imperial. The auction will be held through eBay and will run through their Day of the Dead party on November 2. A portion of proceeds from the auction and event will benefit enrichment programs at Roosevelt Primary School in Ferndale and the Eagles Pledge's Scholarship program.

Imperial might be a brand-new bar, but all of these big-name artists go way back with the partners. Jeff King is the former owner of Small’s in Hamtramck along with Sharon and her husband Jerry and Amir Daiza worked together at a promotions company called Ritual before selling it to Live Nation; Amir used to own St. Andrew’s and Clutch Cargo’s. In the music industry, these guys go WAY back, and many of these local legends got their starts with them designing concert posters (like Arminski) or even playing on their stages (like Niagara).

“Niagara jumped on board and from there [the artists] couldn’t wait to get involved,” Sharon says, noting that many of them are good friends of theirs.

Imperial might not be the most obvious choice for a Day of the Dead celebration if you’re thinking strictly in terms of Mexican traditions, but the partners all have roots in L.A. and have seen the Day of the Dead celebrations there every year. Imperial, being a taste of L.A. in metro Detroit, lends itself well to the concept. “It’s not ‘scary’ [like Halloween.] It’s more about celebrating life. We like the idea of that better.”

They’ll have altar-building and face-painting as well as a special food and drink menu (think Mexican hot chocolate and big bowls of punch) with the staff all painted up DotD-style. There will be an artists’ reception 8-11 p.m. on Thursday, November 1 followed by the main event from 6 p.m. – 2 a.m. on Friday November 2.



Dia de Muertos in Southwest Detroit

Every year the Southwest Detroit Business Association offers ofrenda tours of various public altars in businesses throughout SW Detroit. You can schedule a tour on Thursday or Friday by appointment or download this map for a self-guided tour. 19 sites include popular restaurants, churches, offices and community centers located throughout Southwest Detroit, the city’s enclave of predominantly Mexican and Latino culture. The SDBA typically hosts a “Run of the Dead” every year but had to postpone this year’s after a staffing change didn’t allow them enough time to organize the event. (They plan to host it once again in 2013.)

Saturday, November 3
Noche de los Muertos at the Tangent Gallery/Hastings Street Ballroom, 7 p.m. – 1 a.m. ($5-10)

Noche de los Muertos will feature a gallery of Day of the Dead-themed artwork, Latin lounge music, projected (cheesy) Mexican films, margaritas and sangria, taco trucks and a piñata full of candy. This cheeky quasi-DotD fete is an after party for Damned, an annual art exhibit that explores all things disturbing and macabre. Held over Halloween weekend, Damned is very much in the dark tradition of Halloween while Noche is kept very separate and distinct as a light-hearted and fun Day of the Dead celebration (as Day of the Dead is intended).

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