Dead Alert

An “ofrenda,” an altar festooned with skulls, masks, dolls, and treats. // Photograph by Lisa Luevanos

During Day of the Dead, Detroit’s Mexicantown is very much alive.

Barrio residents construct vivid altars (called ofrendas) festooned with photographs, sugary treats, exuberantly macabre masks and dolls, and special breads honoring deceased loved ones. Shops, restaurants, and homes along Vernor, Bagley, and neighboring streets display colorful murals and paintings.

Visitors to Mexicantown on Nov. 1 and 2 discover that Day of the Dead is a cultural celebration with a markedly different vibe from the better-known Cinco de Mayo, says Vittoria Katanski, Southwest Detroit Business Association marketing director. Day of the Dead is “much more religious in its origins,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to see the spirituality of the Hispanic community.”

On Nov. 2, the association leads walking tours, which focus on the ofrendas. Stops include bakeries that prepare special “Dead” bread and sugar skulls. The tour also includes a stop at Ste. Anne Detroit or Holy Redeemer Catholic church, where docents are available to discuss the history of the structures and parishes. (Association-led tours are $5 per person, and groups can schedule their own.)

Matrix Theatre offers workshops where adults and children may make Day of the Dead masks, sugar skulls, and marionette skeletons. (Workshops are $6 per person and include supplies.)

At the Mexicantown Fiesta Center, a community facility with a hall and outdoor garden, Day of the Dead is a weeklong celebration. Ofrendas, some created by local artists and residents, are on display. The event is “another chance to experience our culture and how we celebrate life at this time of the year,” says Center owner Dolores Sanchez. “It’s not gory and scary. [In] Mexico this time of year you would see celebrations at the cemetery, with food all night long.

“If you were to ask a Mexican child, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ he would say, ‘No, that’s my grandpa lying there. He wouldn’t hurt me.’”

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