November 2019 - The Philanthropy Issue

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A Modern Take on Dia de Los Muertos: Festival La Calaca

With all-night parties featuring famous DJs and an art installation displayed at Burning Man, the La Calaca Festival (or Skull Festival) is a unique and thoroughly modern take on Dia de Los Muertos. So much so, that the festival has received press in both National Geographic and Travel + Leisure.

We had a chance to catch up with La Calaca Festival co-founders Klaudia Oliver and Brigham Golden to find out more about the famous festival they have created, taking place November 1st through 4th in San Miguel de Allende.

Be sure to check out the schedule of events here and purchase tickets here.

La Calaca Festival

Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of death as part of life. While the La Calaca festival is not a traditional representation of the holiday, do you feel the essence of the festival reflects this in a modern way?


La Calaca celebrates the universality of death, and we believe that culture is a living, breathing thing. Dia de Los Muertos itself is a hybrid belief system that's based around both Catholicism and individual indigenous celebrations of death. Now you take that into contemporary Mexico, which is a Mexico that also integrates technology, cultures, and a variety of people, including people from all over the world that live here.

What's more, we feel that there is death as a universal theme in which we are openly inviting everyone to celebrate this holiday. We're not afraid of appropriation, because we feel solid in our roots. If anything, by creating something that's modern, there's been a lot more attraction from the youth including graffiti writers and mappers. In a way, we have learned to sustain this tradition exactly by making it open to people of different cultures and all sorts of artistic backgrounds.


I think San Miguel has a reputation for not being a traditional location for Day of the Dead, like Patzcuaro. That is fair, but in actuality, there's no point of difference. San Miguel is a real Mexican town with all these real traditions. The thing that I think is different, is that in Patzcuaro you go to watch people participate in their traditions; whereas here, you come to participate in the traditions. You add to the altar yourself. You bring your intentions-- your own dead. You remember them... You participate in their traditions. You also paint your face, and you really embody it. We are a participatory arts festival, and we are embedded deeply in tradition actually, and support the tradition. We also have a lot of contemporary art and expressions of the tradition that are new interpretations, new sounding boards, and launching points for the same thematix. But with a deep connection to the intentions and traditions.

The Piramide de Muertos is a fascinating concept. What made you decide to do this and can you tell us a little bit more about its display at Burning Man?


The Pyramid of the Dead is interestingly inspired by a pre-Columbian pyramid called the Pyramid of the Nichos from El Tajín in Veracruz and is an incredibly beautiful and mysterious pyramid. No one really knows what they were used for. Thomas Burkey, the artist who founded the pyramid, created it in as inspired by El Tajín. In this participatory art concept that we have, he has created a piece that is designed to be a communal art alter. It is a collective expression of many artists. In fact the beauty of Day of the Dead is that everyone is an artist. When you make an alter you are creating a meaningful piece of art, and that is the beauty of the pyramid of the dead. It is a participatory piece in which everyone contributes and can participate as an artist, bringing the intention of and honoring their dead.


Like Brigham says, the other part that's really great about the pyramid is that it is actually employing local artisans to make the tin nichos, and transforming their basic concepts into the public arts sphere. A lot of our founders of La Calaca are burners. It’s this participatory arts value system that we have brought from the playa. So when we took the art piece to the playa it won Burning Man Honorarium. it was one of the few Mexican pieces to be showcased there. La Calaca basically is also a camp at burning man, so we have a presence of Mexico at Burning Man. Last year with starting with the premiere of the dead, we also do a Dia de Los Muertos procession by the temple, and we are taking these Mexican traditions to the temple to have representation of our culture in a way that is symbolic and meaningful to them. This last year we had Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, and we did a beautiful procession that I feel touched a lot of people's’ hearts there.

The Xantolo Ritual of the Dead & Full Moon Dance was a blast last year. How do you find the DJs you have performing at the event? They are from all over the world!


In terms of the DJs from Xantolo, I think of festival culture. Brigham is a DJ, I've been a DJ and a club promoter for a very long, long time. So there have been natural links between us and certain kind of music makers. Mostly Berlin-based, but also South American festival collaborations. La Calaca has made its name around this kind of international, electronic music. World beat kind of consciousness that's also heard in Tulum and in other places around the world. So we have got a pretty shithot line up if I don't mind saying so.

The festival began in 2012. How has it evolved over the past 6 years?


When we started, we had this intention. It was during a torrid time in Mexico, and there was a lot of bad press. We wanted to change the narrative of Mexico as a place with powerful cultural contributions where people could come and be able to participate in the beauty and culture in a place that is safe and had profound roots. I think that we've succeeded in that in a lot of ways. San Miguel, if anything, has just received so much press, and now it's known not just as the place for Day of the Dead, but a place to come for culture. We've been a big part of creating that. In some ways we were a node that we want to get people to Mexico and bring Michoacán artists and Oaxacan artists and let San Miguel be the space for this mixing where people from overseas could come.

Now i think we're really trying to figure out how to better be a node to bring this beautiful tradition into the world. That's why we do Day of the Dead at Burning Man. This year we have a collaboration with Houston. The last few years we've had collaborations in New York. We actually had a float in the New York Halloween Parade. Bringing the Day of the Dead to the world beyond Mexico is a real step that we would like to be more of the leaders in going forward.


Like Brigham says, we are definitely changing tact as an arts organization. We are a non-profit, and all of our activity up until now has been volunteer driven 100%. Another way that we are evolving is to identify one thing we've been very good at, which is to be on the social calendar of a certain kind of people. We’ve been very successful in putting ourselves on the map with that. So, we're transitioning into having a production company that enables those kinds of events. However, we’re still very for social justice, so some of the activities that we had like the graffiti, one of the side projects that's blossoming out of La Calaca, is to have what is called Centro Mictlan. For that, for example, the Shabbat Dinner that the Schusterman Foundation is doing on Friday for the second year is being utilized to raise funds to try and have an arts initiative and space for some of our local graffiti artists.

These artists have been elemental in drawing a very cool, hip crowd to places like Guadalupe, but at the same time, they don't necessarily have their own art space. So we are evolving in both social justice here locally and then going out into the world.

How would you like to see the festival evolve over the next few years?


We want more partnerships with international arts foundations. My dream for the future of the Day of the Dead is for it to be part of people's annual, cultural rhythm with people making altars in their homes, remembering and connecting to their dead, and feeling the presence of their dead as their inspiration for their lives. I hope through this foundation, La Calaca, we help bring this beautiful tradition into the world and that the festival can have a hand in that going forward.


And then the other side of it is that we are a rather profound, very cool arts collective that's here, that sort of also sustains some arts residencies. So I see us evolving into having more and more of a Soundcloud presence and a Spotify Presence. I'd like to do more videos of our DJ sets, and really drawing this tribe that has responded very strongly to us with more digital content that could be of relevance and use.