The 2014 Day of the Dead at the Wychwood Barns attracted several thousand people to the Artscape complex on the first day of November. Throughout its seven year history the local event’s popularity has steadily grown in step with other versions at Harbourfront Centre and the Evergreen Brickworks.
Jesus Mora, who occupies a live-work studio at the barns, sat down with me just before Christmas to discuss how our local version of the Day of the Dead had evolved from his studio, how he, along with other members of a collective, transforms the barns into a ritual space and why the goal is to encourage all Torontonians to adapt this Mexican celebration rooted in Aztec culture to their own lives.
You’ve been a tenant of Artscape Wychwood Barns since it opened in 2008, but you were already in the neighborhood before that?
Yeah, I used to have another, very nice studio. It was behind the stores on the south side of St.Clair West near Vaughan Road. There’s a coach house at the end of an alley that opens onto Ellsworth Avenue. It was nice but I couldn’t afford to continue renting it. I made the mural that you can still see on the wall there.
The first Toronto Day of the Dead celebration I knew was at Harbourfront Centre. That was already going on when I arrived in the 1997. Now you hear of many more events but most are just parties.
The story of this thing started in that studio. I’m part of an Aztec Dance group . I had the studio space and we did an altar there and we had planned to dance outside but it was too cold already so we danced inside and we invited community. It was very intimate probably at that time we had 50 people including the dancers and I still don’t understand how we fit in there.
The next year, when I moved into the barns and when I saw its large open space, I realized that we had to move it there. As a tenant of the barns I can use this “covered street” for one day each year. So the second year we did the Aztec dance there and we had music, and some vendors and about two hundred people came… and that’s how it started. Although it began in my studio, all along I wanted it to be something that was created together as a community. And, obviously, it happened without funding.
Recently, we did a partnership with Casa Maiz and that’s why attendance grew to two thousand this year. As well, we got a grant which helps to pay for the Artscape support and maintenance staff for the event.
To watch a 3 minute video documentation of the 2014 Day of the Dead by Blindnet Media click here.
When we decided to apply for the grant we needed to make it more formal, we had to have an account so we needed to formally organize as this “collective”. This is good because it makes us organize it better. We accept proposals and the variety and number of the arts projects has grown.
What made you want to celebrate the Day of the Dead after you moved to Canada?
For a lot of Mexicans, the Day of the Dead is the most important holiday of the year. As an immigrant, I wanted to celebrate and share it as part of a community. My goal, my dream is that Torontonians will adopt the tradition; that they will go to the cemeteries and do their altars. That’s why we do the event. People can adapt the symbols to their own culture, we put tequila and tamales on the altars but Hungarians might substitute potatoes and sausage. The important thing is to come together as a community to remember.
photo Nestore Rodz
You think that Canadians need to be closer to their memory of the dead?
What I see about Day of the Dead is that it’s a movement; it’s happening more and more. What we are trying to do is highlight the reality, the true meaning of the Day of the Dead. I don’t like to call it festival because for me that’s sounds like a party. It’s a festivity but at its roots the Day of the Dead has very deep meaning.
photo Sonia Chavez
As Mexicans in Toronto we are learning of how it’s celebrated differently in each part of our country, the tradition is very strong in the central regions. And, of course beyond Mexico, a lot of cultures have their own traditions and rituals through which people keep connected with friends and family members that aren’t living. Halloween in its origins is the same thing and that’s why the dates coincide.
It’s very open and we get lots of people who volunteer to do altars or help at the last minute. People who get involved feel part of it; they understand it is authentic.
You do an altar for victims of violence?
Yes, the symbolism of the objects, flowers, food, etc. of this altar was explained during the event by Raymundo Trejo, a Mexican anthropologist, who is a member of our collective. He has been lecturing on the Day of the Dead in Toronto public libraries. This is so anyone who comes to the Day of the Dead can go home and do their own altar because you don’t need a huge space, you can make a little altar here and fill it. When someone you care about dies, it’s one of the hardest moments in our lives. You miss that person. And this is very healing. It’s food, it’s art, it’s music. It’s everything. We cry but we laugh. It’s healing.
Beyond having it at the barns, are there ways that you’ve tried to integrate this tradition into neighborhood life?
For the last two years I’ve been trying to extend the celebration to Prospect Cemetery. But in some way I didn’t sell them the idea. At first they said they were open and then they didn’t support it.
photo Fred Bertkin
Describe the symbolism of the dances. Do you choreograph them yourselves?
The dance always has the drum and goes around and symbolizes the universe. And we, as dancers are connected with the earth and the movements make connections with the universe. The themes of the dancers involve the elements, animals, the sea…. Or you can represent a character for example Cuatlicue which could be mother earth but she wears a dress of skulls. Death and life: what in a European mentality are polar opposites in our culture are parts of a unity.
water creatures, acrylic on canvas, Jesus Mora
Did you learn the Aztec dances in Mexico?
No, I became a dancer here. We used to rehearse in the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina Road because each rehearsal is a ceremony.
I noticed that you display some Coca Cola can skulls on your Artscape studio window.
My work is very wide. I like to explore and go in many directions but since I was a kid in Mexico I always liked the theme of death. The Coca Cola skulls came out of an invitation from Harbourfront to make a Day of the Dead altar. President Fox was in power in Mexico. He represented democracy for many Mexicans. But to me this guy was another liar. He had been the president of Coca Cola. That was one of the concepts in that piece and one that I would like to keep exploring. … I would like to make a thousand or more Coca Cola skulls and create installations.
My personal work as an artist is balanced by my work as part of the collective. We are artists and so we’re very focused in the celebration, the tradition and being artists we want to do it with beauty and with art and in an organized way. The goal is to transport people once they arrive at the barns, into Mexico or somewhere else through the symbols, colours, etc. Because this thing is created by everybody: You as a visitor are part of it. That’s why we ask every visitor to bring a flower. Because we want you to offer it to your Mom or whoever you might want to remember. This year we had a new concept, an open mic. and we invited anyone who was passing, “You want to sing, do a poem…?” It was an invitation for people to remember in these ways.
At the barns there was a display with portraits of the 40 “disappeared” Mexican students from Ayotzinapa…
Yes, we also put the political issues there. Each space was programmed as though we were creating a play with the visitors as the characters. At one end of the barns we had the eating area and market place, the tianguis and at the other end the open performance and stage area to which we gave another Nahuatl name relating to Aztec beliefs. The corridor where you saw the students’ pictures was a passage between the tianguis representing our level, the earth where the food was served.
This was also the cemetery, Mictlan, the underworld. That’s where we put the altar with the food. The students were in the passage because officially they were not dead, their bodies had not been found. The parents have hope. So they are in that passage between dead and alive.
Also, outside in the playground we had another installation that didn’t work. We were supposed to have a procession with a band going there and drawing people outside. But it’s hard to make people follow because they don’t know…
We did a lot of sand sculptures, skulls. The idea was to bring people to remember the victims of violence around the world. We light a candle for those who we need to keep in our memory.
photo Amy Desjarlais