Day of the Dead festival honors, celebrates lost loved ones at Tacoma Art Museum

Those who never met Teresa Hernandez were able to get a sense of who she was Sunday at the Tacoma Art Museum, along with others remembered by family and friends for Dia de Los Muertos.

More than 4,000 people celebrated at the museum for its 10th annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, organizers estimated, compared with 400 attendees the first year. The holiday, celebrated primarily in Mexico, honors and celebrates loved ones who have died.

Hernandez’s grandaughter Marisela Diaz said her family gathered to build an alter to honor the woman, who passed away about December last year. Theirs was one of about 27 alters displayed at the festival.

“We were all really close,” Diaz said of her family.

Loved ones and religion were clearly both important to Hernandez. Her family decorated the alter with family photos, rosary beads and depictions of the Virgin Mary, in whom Diaz said her grandmother had great faith.

A little girl with pigtails, carrying a bouquet of bright tissue-paper flowers made for the occasion, waved at Diaz as she toddled by the display.

“In Mexico, they try to get kids to not be afraid of death,” said festival dancer Abraham Medrano. “They show them that life after death isn’t all that bad.”

He’s part of Bailadores de Bronce, a Puget Sound Mexican folk dance group of 42 years. The troupe performed routines that are familiar from coast to coast in Mexico.

New to the festival this year were teenage mariachi performers. Also new was a memorial wall where people could attach notes with names of loved ones they wanted to remember to a string stretched along the museum’s windows.

“Not everybody can make an alter or has time,” said Samantha Kelly, director of education at the museum. “You can write the name of a loved one or a special memory on a slip of paper and tie it to a wall.”

Elizabeth Carmona, 15, played violin with Mariachi Lucero, the Tacoma-area group that performed for the holiday.

The group of teenagers has practiced together for about a year, twice a week.

“It’s just a big part of our culture,” Elizabeth said about the music.

The museum also had tissue-paper flower making, sugar skull decorating and face painting set up for visitors.

Heidi Vladyka, 34, had her face painted with a colorful skeleton design for the holiday with a friend at the festival. They studied abroad in Mexico together, and both hoped to go back one day for Dia de los Muertos.

“It’s not Halloween,” Vladyka said. “It’s celebrating the people who have passed away.”