As the calendar turns from October to November this week, members of Kingston’s Indigenous and Latin American communities are preparing for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, an annual celebration of life rooted in Indigenous practice in Mexico. This Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, the public is invited to attend a special community celebration of life at the H’Art Centre.
Yessica Rivera Belsham has been organizing the annual Día de los Muertos Kingston Celebration of Life since 2015, creating a welcoming space for members of the community to come together and celebrate the lives of their ancestors.
“I grew up knowing it as a tradition when people gather to pay tribute to ancestors and loved ones that have passed away — with an ofrenda (offering), with photos of loved ones, items they liked to eat, drink, or things they liked,” she explained.
Rivera Belsham added, “Although they are always in our hearts and minds, Día de los Muertos is when the ofrenda is up, and depending on the region, it’s when the community gathers for a celebration of life. Día de los Muertos takes place in different ways among various communities in various regions across Mexico, and in multiple other countries.”
While the event first began in 2015, this year’s celebration marks the first Día de los Muertos Kingston Celebration of Life since 2019. After two years of COVID-19 shutdowns, family matters prevented organizers from holding the event in 2022.
Rivera Belsham explained why this year felt like the perfect time to bring back the celebration after a three-year absence.
“Our family has had a tremendous amount of devastating losses over the last couple of years. I know many peoples of all regions all around the world have had a great deal of tragedy and loss, as well,” she said. Given the holiday’s connection to death and loss, the organizer noted that Bereaved Families of Ontario will be on hand to connect those in attendance with helpful resources.
As for what activities and events organizers have planned for this year’s celebration, Rivera Belsham said the festivities will begin with an opening from Grandmother Kathy Brant, followed by a drum circle featuring tribute songs in various languages and the traditional huehuetl (drum). This drum circle “will be open for anyone to join in,” she said.
At 5 p.m., the Ramirez family from Ottawa will present a pre-Hispanic traditional Danza, after which the Los Paisanos Mariachi Band will perform live mariachi music from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Later in the evening, QSALSA (Queen’s Spanish And Latinamerican Students’ Association) will offer salsa lessons, followed by a salsa dance social which runs until the end of the night.
Aside from the music and dancing, those in attendance will also have the chance to try traditional sugar skull catrina-style face painting. According to Rivera Belsham, face painting is an important aspect of Mexican culture.
“The face painting is not part of a costume; it is a way to pay tribute to loved ones that have passed and that connection to our own mortality, in a beautiful way,” she remarked.
Various food vendors will also be on hand at the H’Art Centre, offering a wide range of delicacies including tacos, tamales, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and a variety of desserts. For the little ones, organizers will also be screening the Disney animated film Coco in a separate room, which will also feature colouring and other activities.
While Mexican Indigenous customs are often front and centre at many Día de los Muertos celebrations, Rivera Belsham explained the Kingston event is a “cross-cultural” gathering: “It is about celebrating diversity, food, music, dance, art, [and] community.”
She also noted the holiday is an opportunity for people to consider their own life and death: “[It’s] also about our own mortality [and] how precious, yet fragile, life is.” Those who attend Sunday’s event will also be able to add names to the Interactive Tree of Life in honour of loved ones who have passed away. Rivera Belsham added, “The long-term goal has always been [to] grow more collaborations and raise awareness of how other cultures connect to death, and grief and bereavement, as well.”
While Rivera Belsham has been the driving force for Día de los Muertos celebrations in Kingston for close to a decade, she has not been alone in her efforts. Through the work of Ollin— a local group committed to cultural heritage, collaboration, accessibility, and diversity— the annual Día de los Muertos Kingston Celebration of Life has been able to rely on a dedicated group of community volunteers who make the event possible each year.
Rivera Belsham emphasized, “I have never been alone. I am deeply grateful for the support of family, friends, and community members [who] help out in wonderful ways. [I’m] grateful [for] my mom, Reyna, and dad, Carlos, [who] have been pillars of love of support, as well as my loving and supportive husband, Leslie.”
Besides Día de los Muerto, the team at Ollin also organizes the annual Earth Day Kingston Celebration, as well as the yearly International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The group also holds regular community Ollin Drum Circles.
“They are all similar in the sense that it is about celebrating culture, arts, diversity, Mother Earth, and celebrating our ancestors and celebrating life and community,” Rivera Belsham said of the group’s various events.
Over the last eight years, the annual Día de los Muerto Kingston Celebration of Life has had a number of different homes throughout the city, including the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning. Throughout its time, the event has been supported by organizations including the Canadian Mental Health Association Kingston branch, the former Mexico Lindo y Que Rico restaurant, James Reid Funeral Home, Kingston Community Health Centre, and more.
Despite the support from various community groups and organizations, the Día de los Muertos Kingston event is entirely self-funded, meaning Rivera Belsham relies on donations at the door to make the celebration a reality.
“Many have suggested [we] put up a door cover [charge] for entrance; however, the aim has always been to make events for people regardless of the amount they are able to donate. It is with the hope that people [who] are able to donate generously do so, if they choose to support the event,” noted the organizer.
There will also be a silent auction at the event, with proceeds going toward future editions of Día de los Muerto Kingston Celebration of Life. Those interested in supporting Rivera Belsham’s efforts can do so through donations, including items for the silent auction, or by volunteering for upcoming events.
For the 2023 edition of Día de los Muerto Kingston, Rivera Belsham would like to thank the following community supporters: the Downtown Kingston BIA, Visit Kingston (Tourism Kingston), Kingston Native Centre and Language Nest, 3 Things Consulting, Seketon Park Arts Festival, Global Kingston, Virtue Night Club, Kingston Latino, Kingston Aboriginal Community Information Network, Bloom Skills Centre, and Gentle Wings Puppet Theatre.
Rivera Belsham added, “We want to express how grateful we are for the Ollin and H’Art Centre partnership that has supported the Ollin Drum Circles, International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and now Día de los Muerto Kingston Community Celebration of Life.”
Día de los Muerto Kingston Community Celebration of Life takes place this Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, from 4 to 9 p.m. at H’Art Centre (237 Wellington Street). Additional information is available on Ollin’s Facebook page, Instagram account, or website.