Nonprofits bring mental health support to Dia de los Muertos tradition
on October 30, 2019
At the Latina Center in Richmond, candles, marigold flowers, and ofrendas, or offerings, are placed on an alter next to images of loved ones who have passed away. This is a part of a Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead celebration, an ancient Latin American tradition to honor loved ones who have passed away.
The Latina Center, a local nonprofit offering leadership and personal development opportunities, and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Contra Costa, a nonprofit providing education, support and advocacy for people and families affected by mental illness, collaborated to host the Second Annual Festival of Dia de los Muertos last week.
Dia de los Muertos is not traditionally about mental health. However, the two organizations realized that mourning after death can lead to an unhealthy mental state, and ceremonies around death should be a celebration of life instead. The purpose of this festival on October 26 was to preserve a cultural tradition, destigmatize mental health, and to celebrate the spirits of departed loved ones.
Alejandra Escobedo, a volunteer at both nonprofits, was one of the event organizers. She said she believes that Dia de los Muertos is an opportunity for members of the community to take responsibility and teach the youth about culture and traditions of all Latinx people while also teaching them healthy ways to cope with death.
“The goal is to come together as a community to celebrate community and to fix isolation,” Escobedo said. “In this country, [isolation and depression are] very common… [O]ur culture is fiesta, it is community, and it is solidarity,” she added.
NAMI Contra Costa outreach volunteers Jess Garcia and Mariela Acosta provided mental health resources at the event.
“[Death is] taboo. That’s why we only have one holiday where we really sit down and think about it and share and put up these pictures of our loved ones,” said Acosta.
The event provided them the opportunity to share and talk about the stigma around mental health problems.
“Because of the stigma…[mental health] is not talked about. Especially when we live in a culture of machismo, the men are trained, ‘Don’t express your feelings, you’re going to be seen as weak,’” Garcia said. “You gotta act tough…It’s like a shame for you to express emotions. So it’s actually great that NAMI is actually present at a festival like this because now it allows people to see things differently.”
Event attendee Galia Brahim found out about the event through NAMI Contra Costa. As someone who suffers from depression and severe anxiety, she said she believes that Dia de los Muertos is helpful for people trying to cope and understand mental health.
The act of recovery plays a crucial role in the celebration, and in sustaining mental health, Brahim added.
“For me, [Dia de] los Muertos is about death but also rebirth. And for me [mental health] recovery is about this. It is showing that, after suffering with mental illness, there is a way,” she said.
Also on hand to address honoring and coping with the loss of loved ones was Ernesto Olmos, a traditional healer from La Cultura Cura, healing through culture, who was invited to give a presentation about the history and significance behind Dia de los Muertos.
“Today is the celebration for Day of the Dead, but it deals with the mental health,” Olmos said. “The whole point of mental health in our culture is to let go… accepting, crying…It’s a way of healing. That way of healing is a part of the tradition.”
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