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  • People fill the hallway of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art on Sunday to get a good look at traditional Mexican altars for El Día de los Muertos. The celebration, which drew about 500 people, featured dancing, singing and food.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Amaneceres de Mexico's Hanna Zapata, 11, dances during a song at the Day of the Dead Celebration at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in downtown Fort Wayne, IN on Sunday. The celebration featured dancing, singing, food, traditional Mexican alters. VIDEO

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Javier Beltran sings a song at the Day of the Dead Celebration at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in downtown Fort Wayne, IN on Sunday. The celebration featured dancing, singing, food, traditional Mexican alters. VIDEO

  • Photos by Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Hanna Zapata, 11, dances during a song at El Día de los Muertos , the Day of the Dead celebration Sunday at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Lyndsay Sheets, left, and Raul Perez stand with a marioneta and wait for people to come up and get their photos taken with them at the Day of the Dead Celebration at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in downtown Fort Wayne, IN on Sunday. The celebration featured dancing, singing, food, traditional Mexican alters. VIDEO

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 5:13 pm

Celebrating dead with song, dance

Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette

Raul Perez became interested in his Mexican ancestry after he came to the United States as a 7- year-old.

The 30-year-old South Side High School graduate and graphic artist has found plenty in his research to intrigue him.

On Sunday, he and longtime girlfriend, Lyndsay Sheets, 29, a Northrop graduate, milled among the crowd at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, she as La Catrina, he as a catrin – characters typically portrayed during this holiday.

In their meticulous costumes, they were representing the wealthy that the common people mocked. They were celebrating as part of El Día de los Muertos, Spanish for The Day of the Dead. The museum event brought out about 500 people.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead follows All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, just as it is observed in continental European countries such as France.

In Mexico it isn’t just a trip to the cemetery with mums to lay at loved ones’ graves, it’s a party for those who’ve passed, a chance to honor dead relatives and friends with their favorite flowers, foods, beer, cigarettes and trinkets.

Fernando Zapari, founder and editor of El Mexicano News in Fort Wayne, said he sent money to his sisters in his native Mazatlan to make sure his father’s grave had everything it needed.

One of 10 children and the only one who emigrated here, Zapari was instrumental in getting the performers and the crowd to the museum event, which were double the numbers from last year, according to one museum official.

"We want the museum to be the community museum," said Charles Shepard, museum director. Museum staff served tacos and guacamole.

Sonya Flores, a native Texan now working at Lincoln Financial Corp., encouraged co-workers to come to the event and created one of several altars to the dead.

"You don’t have to be Latino to celebrate the dead and El Día de los Muertos," Flores said. She crafted her own headdress from skulls she bought at Party City and flowers she found at a Goodwill store. Her altar to her grandfather, Raul Flores, featured Winston cigarettes and Miller Lite, among other mementos.

Perez and Sheets’ costumes had an air of authenticity. Last year, they wore Victorian-style dress; this year, the couple chose to represent the era of Pancho Villa. Perez wore a sash of bullets and carried a rope looped like a lasso; Sheets was dressed in a traditional costume that channeled Frida Kahlo in her famous self-portrait.

They fit right in with many of the museum-goers who came to hear the traditional ballads of Mexico sung by local troubadour Javier Beltran and watch young folkloric dancers trained by Margarita Walley perform on stage. There was a long line of both Latin Americans and others waiting to get their faces painted in the holiday’s style. Normally, the day calls for faces painted white with exaggerated, black-rimmed eyes.

Zapari estimated that there are about 30,000 Latin Americans in Fort Wayne, and seven out of 10 of those are from Mexico. And even though the holiday is particularly Mexican, its popularity has spread to neighboring countries like Nicaragua, he said.

"I love culture," said Esteban Coria, a Spanish teacher at IPFW who came with his wife, Jenna, a Spanish teacher at Leo High School, and their 7-year-old daughter, Addison. He called the event a tapestry of culture and appreciated the presence of La Catrina, he said, for its political and cultural significance. 

Jenna Coria was busy welcoming her Spanish students who liked the idea of extra credit, she said.  

jduffy@jg.net