On Sat., Oct. 27, the parking lot of the Fair Haven Bregamos Community Theater was filled with colorful puppets and vibrantly costumed children and adults. Propped against a chain-link fence, the beautiful handmade puppets included a large bird, a dragon, and various skeletons. A face painting station drew a small crowd of excited children, while two costumed musicians sustained a lively rhythmic beat on hand drums to complement the energy emanating from the crowd. Inside the theater were tables covered with handmade cardboard and paper maché skull masks. “I want a mask!” cried a boy in a ninja costume to his mother as he ran around the lot.
The bustling scene outside Bregamos was in preparation for a parade celebrating Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that honors the memory of the deceased. To commemorate the day, a festive parade had been organized by Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), a grassroots immigrant rights organization, Junta for Progressive Action, a Latino advocacy group, and Bregamos Community Theater, a local space dedicated to creating community-based theater for New Haven residents from all walks of life. Though this was technically the second annual Day of the Dead parade in New Haven, an unexpected snowstorm forced last year’s festivities indoors.
The parade commenced at 5:00 p.m. as the procession began its two-mile march down Blatchley Avenue. Many residents of Fair Haven emerged from their homes to watch the parade from their porches, drawn by the parade’s brilliance and commotion. Skeleton puppets, adorned with top hats, floral scarves, and mariachi uniforms, charmed the children in the audience. Caped dancers, marchers with elaborate painted faces, and families with babies in their strollers all rounded out the parade. Occasionally, one of the parade leaders, armed with a megaphone, invited spectators to join the parade in rapid-fire Spanish. The bright hues of parade signs and puppets stood brightened up the surrounding neighborhood.
Many of the parade’s participants came from beyond the Fair Haven community. For instance, members of Seminarians for a Democratic Society (SDS), a new social justice collective at the Yale Divinity School, were also present at the parade to support ULA. “Our main aim is not so much to organize big events as it is to develop positive, rather than exploitative, relationships with the New Haven community,” said member Greg Williams, DIV ’15. According to Williams, SDS hopes to support and co-organize events with various local organizations to build long-term relationships across class and racial lines. SDS members held a large puppet and a banner as part of the parade.
This year’s Day of the Dead parade was not merely a celebration of Latino culture. It was also a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Elm City Resident Card, New Haven’s municipal identification card. The card serves as a means of identification for those who may not otherwise have one, allowing undocumented immigrants to open local bank accounts, and can be used to access parks and libraries. “The card came about because of dialoguing in the community about how to create a better New Haven,” explained John Jairo Lugo, a parade organizer and one of the founding members of ULA. The city was the first administrator of such an ID card in the United States.
At the front of the parade, two participants held a sign proclaiming the fifth anniversary of the Elm City ID card. Indeed, many of the parade participants held signs and banners addressing themes of immigration. Behind the card-supporters, other parade participants bore a large banner that declared, “Unidad Latina en Acción Presente.” Further down the parade, another sign depicted a disapproving-looking Native American man, next to the words, “Who’s the illegal alien, pilgrim?”
According to Megan Fountain, ULA volunteer and an organizer of the event, the parade was a moment of healing for New Haven. Fountain explained that New Haven has recently seen an influx of Mexican, Ecuadorian, and Guatemalan immigrants. This, in turn, has led to tension between the new immigrant populations and New Haven’s African American and Puerto Rican communities. “The tensions go both ways,” Fountain explained. “A lot of new immigrants don’t understand the experience of African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Some Latin Americans might have prejudices against black people from their own countries. And then on the other hand, the African American and Puerto Rican communities hear myths about immigrants stealing jobs.”
However, the Day of the Dead parade brought together Fair Haven residents of all ages, classes, and races. “Many residents were not accustomed to seeing this kind of parade,” Lugo said. “It was very important to have a different mixture of cultures and races walking the streets, especially for a neighborhood that usually gets attention from the news for its drugs and violence and poverty.”
At the end of the parade, the participants returned to Bregamos Community Theater for the afterparty. Inside the theater, the air was rich with the scent of Latin American food and the feeling of camaraderie. Near the entrance was an altar to honor immigrants who had died crossing the border. Marchers relaxed after the parade and lined up for food.
Fountain hopes that the parade will produce a ripple effect in the community. “The parade can become an annual tradition that gets bigger each year,” she said, citing other large New Haven parades like those which occur on Saint Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, and the state Puerto Rican Day. “You see how those are big institutions in New Haven. The Day of the Dead can become a new tradition. There isn’t an[other] annual parade that represents Mexicans, Ecuadorians, or Guatemalans, who are the major new immigrant populations in New Haven.”
At the afterparty, Lugo recognized African Americans and Puerto Ricans for their contributions to social justice in New Haven in a speech made in both English and Spanish. Later, a Puerto Rican band and a Mexican band played music for salsa and cumbria dancing. “This parade was very powerful because you saw groups of people that were very polarized coming together,” Fountain said. “It sends a message that we can defeat racial tensions that have been created to divide.”