Grave Encounters: Day of the Dead in Phoenix

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Culture Issue: October 2015
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Photo courtesy Desert Botanical GardenHalloween legend has it that on October 31, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest. While some groups focused on chasing away bad spirits with masks and scary props, Latin American and Mexican cultures honor their dead via Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

The holiday is traditionally celebrated November 1-2, with those left behind paying homage to their ancestors with food, drink, dancing and parties – basically, activities their forebears enjoyed while alive. Images associated with the holiday have been popularized in the media, from decadent ofrendas (altars) to sugar skulls and dancing calacas (skeletons).

According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, Día de los Muertos has its origins in the two-month-long Aztec Festival of the Dead, in which ancient pre-colonization peoples made altars and offerings to the goddess of the underworld. It evolved into the current two-day festival after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors.

Phoenix’s vibrant Latino community continues these traditions through a myriad of colorful cultural celebrations. While not everyone believes that souls wander the earth during Día de los Muertos, locals can do their dearly departed loved ones proud by dedicating altars and kicking up their heels at these six Valley events.

Desert Botanical Garden’s fall celebration starts the fun a day early with a catered dinner from authentic Mexican food joint Rosita’s Place at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 29. The Cuisine and Culture of Día de los Muertos event also features folklórico dancing and a discussion with artist Zarco Guerrero. The theme continues October 31-November 1 with community altar building, costumed daily parades (La Procesión), live music and storytelling. Visit the Mercado for art and jewelry or peep local artists’ works in the Ofrendas exhibit. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Dinner $55-69; weekend events free with garden admission. 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., Phoenix, 480- 941-1225,

Now through October 31, Burton Barr Central Library’s Central Gallery is hosting a free art exhibition of Día de los Muertos altars titled "Creativity: Inspiration of My Imagination." In keeping with the theme, artists were asked to honor someone deceased who inspired his or her creative pursuits. Pop by from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, October 29, to catch up on Day of the Dead history with social artist and Mesoamerican culture expert Oliverio Balcells. 1221 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-262-4636,

Join the Arizona National Latino Peace Officers Association at a Día de los Muertos Costume Party, 6:30-11:30 on Saturday, October 31 at the Four Points Sheraton. The shindig includes costume contests, dinner and a ballet folklorico performance by Tradiciones Dance Company. Proceeds benefit the NLPOA Scholarship Fund. $30 per person/$50 per couple. 0831 S. 51st St., Phoenix.

Visit Cien Agaves Tacos & Tequila for a Day of the Dead tequila pairing dinner to benefit the Scottsdale League for the Arts at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 1. Mixologist Luke Detraz will whip up a few spirits of his own with on-the-spot cocktails to complement dishes like shredded duck and manchego cheese tamales, chile pork osso buco and coconut lime sorbet infused with tequila. $80 per person. 21+ only, limited availability. 7228 E. 1st Ave., Scottsdale, 480-970-9002,

Downtown Chandler’s second annual Día de los Muertos Festival kicks off at 11 a.m. on Sunday, November 1, with costume contests, car shows, sugar skull making and plenty of Mexican grub. Also look for community altar displays and live music including mariachi bands and salsa. AJ Chandler Park, 3 S. Arizona Ave., 480-310-2018,

Velvet-voiced songstress Olivia Calderon, aka La Voz de Diamanté, will perform at this year’s Día de los Muertos bash at Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center (ALAC) on Friday, November 6 from 5-10 p.m. She is joined by Mariachi Rodriguez, artists Monica Villarreal and Zarco Guerrero, and performers from the Arizona Opera. 147 E. Adams St., Phoenix, 602-254-9817,