Sunday, November 1 and Monday, November 2, 2009 marked the 9th annual “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) celebration, held at Winchester Park and Recreation Center in Las Vegas. Southern Nevada Agency Partners (SNAP) collaborated with law enforcement officers from four federal land management agencies (NPS, USFWS, BLM, and USFS) to take part in the celebration. Research Associates Emily Montoya, Laura Brinson, and Virginia Ramos, who work at Lake Mead NRA’s Education and Interpretation division on community outreach projects, oversaw this team effort. This was the second year that SNAP participated in the event.
The Day of the Dead, or “All Souls’ Day,” celebrations originated in Latin America, where for two days people honor deceased loved ones by constructing elaborate altars decorated with flowers, candles, food, and photographs. Across Mexico and the United States, people celebrate this tradition in similar ways, integrating themes and experiences common to their region. SNAP and federal agency law enforcement officers chose to remember the sixteen people who, in 2009, committed suicide on southern Nevada’s public lands. Emily, Laura, and Virginia took on the project of constructing an altar. Emily says, “We were given this theme, and complete freedom to express it.”
The three Research Associates bring their expertise as environmental educators to school fairs, career days, Earth Day festivals and other community events, such as this one. Emily explains, “Working with Lake Mead and SNAP, our goal is to educate the public about Southern Nevada’s diverse natural environment. We focus on how human activity, for better and worse, affects the desert environment. Our aim is to inspire groups of all ages to get outdoors and get involved.”
To honor the sixteen individuals, whose identities were kept anonymous, SNAP decided to build an altar, or “ofrenda,” that integrated four sites located on public lands in Southern Nevada: Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Spring Mountains, and Desert National Wildlife Refuge. The team also assembled a collage from photos of Southern Nevada’s public lands that served as a stunning backdrop for the ofrenda. “We had about 5 days to put it all together,” Emily recalls. “The GBI RAs, as well as Laura’s husband and SNAP volunteer, Jim, worked literally day and night to put the altar together. The process was exhilarating. Nobody knew exactly what the outcome would look like, so we took it day by day, hour by hour. Jim was instrumental in the ofrenda’s construction, because he wasn’t afraid to bust out the duct tape.”
The group embraced the spirit of the event, carefully attending to every detail of the altar’s construction, even tracking down traditional ofrenda items. Sixteen white candles commemorated each suicide, and marigold flowers, paper mache flowers, and “Pan de Muerto,” (Bread of the Dead) adorned the completed ofrenda. Emily made the bread herself. She explains, “The bread recipe I used originated with Frida Kahlo, which made it authentic and significant to me from the start. When I went to buy the ingredients, a baker at one of the Hispanic groceries gave me practical advice and encouraged me. Many people commented on how rare it is to make your own bread. That time of year, every Hispanic bakery has pan de muerto coming out of the oven seven times an hour!”
By participating in this Day of the Dead celebration, SNAP hopes to raise community awareness about the prevalence of suicide on public lands, and to send the message that Southern Nevada’s public land managers care about this issue. The personalized altar makes the point that, statistics aside, suicide involves real people. The event also gave SNAP the opportunity to meet informally with members of the community, many of whom they encounter in the course of managing public lands. “A few people had direct experience with suicide on public lands—finding someone while camping, or encountering someone climbing up a mountain with a loaded gun—and were happy to share,” Emily says. “Other people were moved by the directness of our topic and commented that these suicides often go overlooked.”
During the Day of the Dead celebration, SNAP shared its message with over 10,000 people. “We also let them know who we are and what we do,” Emily adds. “Because our ofrenda was a mock-up of Southern Nevada, we could talk to people about Red Rock RCA, Desert NWA, LAME, and the Spring Mountains, and share with them ways to get involved in fun outdoor activities.”
– By Emily Montoya, with Chris Robertson