A mariachi band from Salt Lake City will perform at the Moab Valley Multicultural Center's Day of the Dead Festival on Sunday, Oct. 30. [Courtesy photo]

Day of the Dead is not a scary occasion and should not be confused with Halloween.

Instead, Day of the Dead is a time when families remember and honor their deceased loved ones by decorating altars, preparing special foods, and welcoming the spirits believed to visit during that time.

“It’s a very spiritual, fun, and happy celebration,” Moab Valley Multicultural Center outreach and service director Leticia Bentley said. “It’s a beautiful tradition and a time to remember your loved ones, and feel them close to you … It’s also a time to reflect on what you are doing with your life. What kind of story do you want your family telling? What do you want to hear them saying about you around the table?”

Bentley grew up in Mexico, where she met her husband, a Moab native. In her native country, families begin preparing their homes a week before the holiday by holding cleansing ceremonies, and building and decorating altars dedicated to friends and family members who have died. In some regions, a sacred plant is harvested for tea, and for its fragrance on the altar.

Bentley said her co-worker Zaida Winn, who is originally from Bolivia, will also add a South American perspective on the holiday at the event.

Each year, the Moab Valley Multicultural Center seeks to share the custom with local residents by organizing a Day of the Dead event held outside the center.

The sixth annual Day of the Dead celebration will take place on Sunday, Oct. 30, from 1 to 5 p.m. There will be various cultural activities for kids, live music and authentic Mexican food for sale, such as tamales and tacos.

And, there will be altars and “tombs” – rich with symbolism – decorated by community members in honor of their own loved ones, including pets that have died.

Altars are decorated with flowers, candles, salt, photos and favorite items of the deceased.

Candles symbolize light for the path back to this world; flowers are to welcome and also guide the spirits with their essence, salt is to preserve the spirit, and water is to alleviate thirst, Bentley said.

A multicultural youth chorus, from the Amigos to Amiguitos mentoring program, will open the festival, followed by a performance by Sol de Jalisco, a Salt Lake City-based mariachi band, MVMC outreach coordinator Joanna Onorato said.

Youth salsa group Salsa Picante which Rita Maldonado leads, will also perform, and community artwork with a Day of the Dead theme will be displayed.

Bentley said she introduced the custom in Moab in 2003, when she taught immigrant students at Grand County High School. They began observing the holiday by creating small altars.

“I wanted students not to lose their culture; I wanted them to be proud of who they are, and not be embarrassed,” she said.

Families come together during the holiday to cleanse the home, decorate the altar and prepare favorite foods of their deceased loved ones. In fact, an extra plate of food is set out for an entire week prior to the holiday.

“It takes a lot of work,” Bentley said. “It brings the whole family together,” and contributes to the closeness that Mexican families are known for.

“It’s a very family-oriented culture,” she said. “Neighbors are part of your family. It’s a rich community.”

The multicultural center became involved to introduce the custom to the larger community, Bentley said.

“I would like people to come and be a part of it,” she said. “Everybody is welcome.”

Latin American festival honors those who have passed away

“It’s a beautiful tradition and a time to remember your loved ones, and feel them close to you … It’s also a time to reflect on what you are doing with your life.”

When: Sunday, Oct. 30, from 1 to 5 p.m.

Where: Moab Valley Multicultural Center, 156 N. 100 West

Information: moabmc.org; 435-259-5444

For more information, go to moabmc.org, or call 435-259-5444.