SUMA Festival of Altars Celebrates Cultural Diversity in A Two Week Tribute

The Southern Utah Museum of Art hosted a unique “Festival of Altars” that took place from Oct. 26 to Nov. 7. The Día de los Muertos celebration allowed Hispanic natives and community members to safely celebrate and learn more about the Spanish culture and holiday.

Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a Mexican holiday celebrated between Nov. 1 and 2. Friends and family gather together to remember those who have died, preparing altars and offerings to welcome their return to the land of the living for one night. 

SUMA’s first event celebrating the holiday took place in 2018, with appropriate cultural music, dancing and food. When the expected turnout of 150-200 was surpassed by nearly 1000, event organizers recognized the need for an annual celebration like this in the community, so they made it a tradition. This year’s celebration was in the works since April.

“This year’s Día de los Muertos celebration looks very different from the last two years where we welcomed thousands of visitors to participate in traditional activities,” said Jessica Kinsey, SUMA director/curator in a press release before the event. “However, we still hope to be a cultural resource in the community where we can learn from each other through the power of art.” 

The theme of this year’s exhibition centered around altars or “ofrendas” (offerings) and the items that people place on those altars to honor loved ones. 

The museum staff created 500 free take-home art kits that included activities based on significant elements of the traditional altar – sugar skulls, papel picado, marigolds – and other materials for guests to create a personal altar for a loved one who has passed away. The art celebrating the holiday on display in the museum featured the work of several students that focused on these same elements. 

“At home we have our ofrenda for my grandparents and I miss it,” SUU sophomore Architecture Major Jorge Saucedo said. “Me and my grandma would make churros together, so every single Día de los Muertos I would make churros and leave them out for her as an offering…it reminded me that I need to remember and call my family and see how they’re doing and that I need to be more active in my family.”

SUMA marketing and communications manager Emily Ronquillo shared that the decision to expand the event over two weeks instead of a single day was to allow for social distancing. This way more people could enjoy the event without the risk of being in the company of the thousands that the celebration has previously drawn in.

Even with alterations to accommodate for the pandemic, the largest event of the year at SUMA attracted hundreds of community members and those far beyond SUU campus.

“I was out at the front the first week of the festival, and I had a couple come in and they said that they were from Las Vegas,” Ronquillo said. “We asked them what brought them in and they said specifically this Day of the Dead event. It was mind blowing that we had people coming all the way from Vegas just for this event.”

Museum staff intend to continue the tradition of an annual Día de los Muertos celebration and hope to make it larger every year. Ronquillo noted that it’s important for the community to have this and similar events in order to connect not only through art, but culture and tradition. 

Seeing the altars on display in front of the museum was important for Saucedo, an immigrant originally from Tecate, Mexico who normally celebrates the holiday with his family.

“The Day of the Dead celebration allows us to not only remember, in a very special way, the loved ones who are not longer with us but also help us find common ground by commemorating something we can all identify with, which is love,” shared Junice Acosta, an SUU Spanish instructor.

“By celebrating Day of the Dead our community becomes every year more aware of how, in the end, we are not that different from each other, but we rather have a lot of similarities.”


Story By: Larissa Beatty

Photos by: Christopher Diamond