Creating Cultural Context

By Susan Bean Aycock

Pictured: Photos provided by Creative Waco

Amid the dazzling colors, decked-out parade floats and elaborately dressed participants, Waco’s second annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival and parade on October 29 was at its heart about cultural context.

Part of the festival’s mission was to educate the community on the true meaning of the beloved Mexican holiday: honoring departed loved ones and remembering family in a celebration of life. In Mexico, where the holiday supposedly originated with Aztecs honoring their war dead, holiday-specific dress and make-up play a major role in the celebration. This year, Waco’s Muertos festival openly invited participants to be professionally styled with dress and makeup by contracting with local clothing designers and makeup artists.

“It was amazing to see such a diverse crowd of people embracing this incredible Hispanic cultural tradition,” said Fiona Bond, executive director of Creative Waco, an event partner along with Eastside Market, Keep Waco Loud and Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “This was an opportunity for all to participate in a culturally rich festival alongside the Hispanic community.”

Creative Waco contracted with local clothing designers Roxana Robles and Serena Rigby, and makeup artists Sarahy Franco and Alexandria Cervantez, to offer dress and makeup styling, advertised via social media about six weeks before the event. “The reason we added the styling component was that last year when we offered an invitation to the community to participate in the festival and parade, there was some hesitancy about cultural appropriation and how appropriate it would be for non-Hispanics to celebrate this holiday or wear full dress,” said Julie Cervantes, parade project manager and one of three co-founders of the first event in 2021 along with friends Roxana Robles and Nancy Pulcine. “We created this [fashion styling] component as a way to invite people to openly participate and have intimate discussions with the Hispanic women styling them to help bridge that gap.”

Cervantes said the three friends’ idea for a Día de los Muertos festival and parade came about one evening over a glass of wine and the desire to keep cultural and artistic momentum after her art show and Robles’ fashion show. “We all just jumped on the idea and said, ‘Let’s do it!’” she said. “We got Eric Linares (community organizer and this year’s festival project manager) involved and joined forces with Creative Waco, and pretty soon we had this big old giant team.”

“Día de Muertos is a celebration and remembrance of my family and friends who have passed, the tradition that my family showed me growing up that I now share with my children,” said Nancy Pulcine, a co-founder of the original event. “Being Mexican-American makes me proud to be able to celebrate the days in my culture.”

Clothing-wise, Muertos style leans heavily on stylized skulls and elegant dress, especially as worn by the emblematic La Catrina, painted by Mexican artists José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera in the early part of the 20th century. Catrina’s enigmatic smile on a skeleton face hints at the mysticism of death; her over-stylized dress was originally artist Posada’s satire on upper-class Mexicans who idealized European dress in 1910.

For couture tailor Robles, seeing the event explode from idea to reality, then unleashing her creative energy was an experience that played to her love of designing unique couture clothing. “Creating is my passion,” she said [in Spanish, translated here]. “I love making unique designs for each client. Día de los Muertos is a tradition where the whole family comes together to joyfully remember departed loved ones who are no longer with us physically but who are always in our hearts.”

Rigby, a fashion upcycler, used her skills to help share her culture with the larger community. “The fact that our Latino and Hispanic community in Waco has this opportunity to share and have our people shine on such a large scale is beautiful.” As in her custom clothing business, Rigby up-cycled Muertos attire from gently used clothing with the goal of bringing awareness to reducing waste and making even festive attire wearable for every day. (Her business, Living Dead Threads, alludes to the process of “resurrecting old clothing that’s just dying on a pile.”) “It’s exciting to take scraps of fabric or an unloved garment and turn it into something else entirely,” she said.

For makeup artist Alexandria Cervantez, the festival was an opportunity to combine cosmetic artistry with cultural tradition (confessing that during the pandemic, she passed the client-less time by practicing special makeup effects on herself). “I love making people feel confident and beautiful,” she said. ”I’m loving that Waco is promoting Hispanic culture; when I was growing up, you didn’t see that so much.”

Cosmetologist Franco (whose day job primarily consists of doing hair, nails and makeup for special occasions like weddings and quinceñeras), was pulled into makeup styling for the first festival and this year called Robles to ask if she could be a part of it. “Doing makeup was my way of contributing to the celebration, and I’m so happy to help celebrate it in Waco,” she said. “It shows a little bit of Mexico and its traditions.”

Bond described the community impact and cultural context of Día de los Muertos: “It’s a celebration inherently about facing up to the reality of our own mortality, that allows us to grieve in a way that’s life-giving and makes us appreciate who and what we have,” she said. “It’s a festival that celebrates our creativity as a way of connecting and brings us together through the love of family and telling stories of people whose legacy is honored by our memories,” she added. “You can only live well when you know that each day is a gift and you never know when your last one will be.”