Event Recognizes Mexican, African American Heritage

Author: May Lee Johnson

By MAY LEE JOHNSON South Bend Tribune on October 27

SOUTH BEND -- It was a time of honoring souls gone home.

The Mexican celebration, the Day of the Dead crossed over into the African-American culture last week when the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture sponsored “A Community Collaborative Celebration — Altar of Freedom — In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 50th Anniversary of His Historic Visit to South Bend.”

Event recognizes Mexican, African-American heritage“Every year the Mexican culture celebrates the Day of the Dead,” said Gilberto Cárdenas, director of Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture. “What we are trying to do is take the Mexican celebration — the Day of the Dead — and cross it over into the African-American culture by honoring Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and we welcome home the souls at tonight’s celebration. This program is part of the African World Program Series.”

The evening began with musical performances by the Mariachi Singers from the University of Notre Dame. The event also featured a musical performance by Luther Gray, percussionist from New Orleans.

“This first song was a dance of welcome,” said Gray. “If you have ever been to or seen a funeral in New Orleans you will hear lively music and drumming. It’s our way of using the drums to rise the sprit of the dead and invite people to dance with us as we honor our ancestry.

“The drums is a passion instrument and when we play it that spills out into the audience, and people get up and move. So it’s wonderful to bring our culture here to both celebrate the Day of the Dead and to honor Dr. King on the 50th anniversary of his visit to South Bend and Washington, D.C.,” Gray said.

The evening continued with dancing, exhibitions, music, art projects, food, a poem and visits to the Altar of Freedom.

Diogenes Ballester, who is an educator and writer with a studio in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) in New York City, was asked to create the Altar of Freedom at the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture. He said he was honored to do so.

“When I created the Altar of Freedom it awaits the most important elements: the offerings of people from the community,” Ballester said. “When people come and offer offerings to the dead it provides an opportunity to pay respect, tribute and commemoration to our ancestors.”

The painting of Dr. King is not just a painting; it’s an altar that represents both Mexicans and African-Americans, he said. On the left is an African woman and on the right is Our Lady of Guadalupe; both are mothers of each culture.

“The altar has dirt, flowers, the Black American flag, shoes to remember the march and more. It’s my way to bring to two cultures — African-American and Mexican — together for a better understanding of our cultures,” Ballester said.

Additionally, Perley Fine Arts Academy created a Day of the Dead skull.

Those who attended the event said they enjoyed it.

“I have never attended an event like this in my life,” said Mary Spencer, of South Bend. “It was wonderful learning about the Day of the Dead. I knew about Dr. King but not the Mexican holiday. This was a good experience.”