Since the park’s debut in 2008, Halloween has always been a big deal at Discovery Green. “Scream on the Green is one of our annual events that people look forward to the most, and it celebrates a very American holiday of Halloween,” says programming director Susanne Theis. But with a huge portion of Discovery Green‘s visitors identifying as Hispanic—40 percent according to a recent survey—Theis and her colleagues began to wonder if they should incorporate other cultural traditions around Halloween that are important to Houstonians.
The obvious choice was Día de los Muertos, a centuries-old Mexican holiday where families and friends gather to celebrate, remember and prepare special foods in honor of those who have departed. In April, Theis and programming coordinator began to explore what a Discovery Green Día de los Muertos event would look like.
“Halloween tends to be very celebratory; it’s about getting dressed up in creative, inventive costumes and being somebody else. Día de los Muertos is more serious,” says Theis. “I’ve always found it really fascinating that there’s a connection between the two holidays in that they’re both about death, but they represent very different outlooks.”
The timing worked out too, with Scream on the Green® typically celebrated the week before Halloween—this year it’s Oct. 26—meaning that Discovery Green could schedule this new event on Nov. 2, the final day of the traditional Mexican three-day celebration. And while local groups have held great Día de los Muertos celebrations for years—MECA’s annual festival in the Sixth Ward is probably the best-known—the programming staff ultimately decided that there was not only a gap when it came to producing something on a city-wide scale, there was a lot of enthusiasm about the subject matter.
Crossover pop culture markers like sugar skulls, catrina costumes, and the Disney film Coco have sparked renewed interest in Día de los Muertos in recent years. When the movie was shown as part of the park’s Screen on the Green® series in May, more than 5,000 people attended. And Discovery Green found an eager supporting partner in Taqueria Arandas, which was excited about being part of an event that would help explain part of its culture to Houstonians and encourage all types of people to join together to experience this vibrant holiday and its traditions.
“Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life and death and, at Arandas Bakery, it is a tradition that brings families together,” said Judy Camarena, president of Arandas Franchises. “One of the most representative elements is pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, which is decorated with bones, skulls and teardrops made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life, and teardrops symbolize sorrow.”
As the idea for Discovery Green‘s first Día de los Muertos began to take shape, other compelling collaborations presented themselves: Jarabe Mexicano, a San Diego-based Mexican folk-rock quintet, was booked to perform a show based around Día de los Muertos, in which the musicians dress in costume and explain the holiday’s rituals to the audience; Houston street artist and muralist Angel Quesada (a.k.a. #artkungfu) was tapped to create a three-tiered altar that will be a centerpiece of the event; the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art volunteered to loan the park a 12-foot calavera skull created by Gonzo247; and recalled ballet folklorico troupes Nueva Luna Ballet Folklorico, Danzas Folkloricas de Solei and Danza Azteca that performed at the park’s B!rthday Bash in April that had impressed the crowd with a relevant number.
“They performed a wordless play that explained how Mexican people view the afterlife—it was really engaging, and we thought it was a beautiful way to help the audience understand what’s going on,” says Theis. “It’s important that we are working with people who represent the culture and who understand the rituals and meanings of this holiday. Finding those partnerships was key to our moving forward.”
The evening will include art, crafts, live music, and special performances, but Theis anticipates that the most meaningful element will be a procession around the park ultimately leading to Quesada’s altar, where visitors can place items associated with their loved ones who have passed on: flowers, candles, food, photographs and other mementos.
“It’s been a difficult year, recovering from Harvey, and the altar representing lost loved ones is going to be something people connect with,” says Theis. “People will love the music and the dance they see, but we also hope they will walk away with a deeper understanding of this very old tradition they might not have appreciated before.”
Discovery Green. Reg. U.S. Pat. & Tm. Off.