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Day of the Dead altars honor family, heritage

on November 2, 2009

The couple in the old photograph stared ahead with grave, stiff faces, the way people used to pose back when taking a photo was a black-and-white occasion. The photograph sat on the altar’s blue felt, surrounded by a shot glass filled to the brim with tequila, a small wooden guitar and a pack of Mexican cigarettes.

Aracily Perez, the couple’s 35-year-old great-granddaughter, had arranged it just so. The tequila because she knew her long-dead great-grandparents were born in Tequila, Mexico, and used to make the drink back in the day. The cigarettes were Faros, the brand they used to smoke. Perez said her mother found the pack, which looks as old as the photo itself, especially for the occasion.

Perez stepped back onto the urban plaza and looked at the fair booth where the altar stood.

“I think about it year around,” she said about the memorabilia she collects to decorate the yearly altar. “Every little thing that reminds me of them. I remember how they used to be when they were alive.”

Perez fed the ceramic burner a few pieces of Copal resin, and soon the altar was filled with the sweet smell of incense. For the past five years Perez, who was born in Durango, Mexico and brought to Oakland in her cradle 35 years ago, has set up an altar for her dead relatives and friends during Oakland’s Dia de los Muertos celebration.

White painted skulls stand out among bright displays

White painted skulls stand out among bright displays

The city-sponsored Day of the Dead festival takes place every November 1 in the plaza near the Fruitvale BART stop. This year–amid hundreds of merchants selling food, clothing and crafts; the elaborately-costumed troupes dancing traditional dances; the small amusement park; and the T-shirts and posters decorated with little figures of smiling skeletons–you could still find a few dutiful sons and daughters who, like Perez, kept alive the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead with flowers and games, food and drink.

“You offer them what they liked to do when they were alive,” Perez said, pointing to a deck of cards dealt neatly on the first row of her altar near a bottle of hot sauce and a bottle of soft drink. The cards were used in the traditional Mexican bingo game, called Loteria. Perez joked that she included the popular game on the altar with one caveat:

“If you lose in the game,” she told her dead relatives, “don’t start fighting.”

Perez said the altar tradition has been adapted to fit life in the United States. One example is that marigolds, the bright orange flowers used in the altars, are extremely cheap in Mexico (“they grow everywhere,” Perez said).  In the US, however, marigolds, or flores de muerto, as they are known in Spanish, are a lot more expensive, adding an unexpected burden to altar-making.

Another difference is that in Mexico, families usually celebrate Dia de los Muertos at much closer geographic distance to the dead.

“Today they’d go to the cemetery,” Perez said, and arrange altars by the tomb of their dear ones before spending a celebratory night. In the morning, they’d “share” the food and drinks with their dead relatives. But since American cemeteries have strict closing hours, the tradition has been transferred to the home – and, in some cases, to public venues like the Fruitvale festival.

Perez, who was preparing to set up another, smaller altar when she got home that night, said setting up the altar in a public space makes it feel less like a religious experience.

“When you have it at home, it’s more intense,” she said, as she straightened the wood chips spread on the floor under the altar. “You feel like they are there with you.”

The angelitos altar

The angelitos altar

Near Perez, a small-framed woman oversaw a different kind of altar, more sober and sparse. No bright colors and smiling skulls here; instead, handmade cards, baby bottles, and jars of baby food hung side by side with tiny shoes and photographs of stillborn children. In one such card, a hand-drawn heart had been divided in two, half pink and half blue, with the names of a girl and a boy written inside with a simple dedication in Spanish.

The small-framed woman’s name was Maria Isabel Aguilar. Originally from Guatemala City, Aguilar moved to the Bay Area in 1996, and for the past three years she has supervised an Alameda County public health program for Latino mothers who have lost their babies. The altars the mothers put up on Dia de los Muertos in memory of the angelitos, as they are known in Spanish, are part of a deep-seated tradition in all of Catholic Latin America, but according to Aguilar they have gained special significance for the Latino population in the US.

Aguilar said it is customary in Latin America to give proper burial services to stillborn children, including wakes at the family’s house or at church. However, burial prices in the US, which can cost thousands of dollars, make this custom impossible for most Latino immigrants. Hospitals often offer cremation services free of charge, Aguilar said, but it is common for the mothers never to receive the ashes.

“The ritual they miss is here,” Aguilar said, showing a large poster where the participants had designed in simple lines the layout of the altar. “They miss the process of grieving.”

In addition, she said, making the altar alongside others who have gone through similar anguish provides mothers with much-needed support. “Much of the Latino population feels very isolated here,” Aguilar said. “They don’t have family and friends.”

Traditional Day of the Dead decoration

Traditional Day of the Dead decoration

While for people like Aguilar’s mother, yesterday’s Dia de los Muertos was about finding a way to deal with loss, many others saw it more as a cultural experience and a chance to get closer to their Latino roots.

Beatriz Rodriguez, an educator born and raised in Oakland’s Fruitvale district whose parents emigrated from the Chavinda region in southern Mexico, said she had never even heard about Dia de los Muertos until she took a class in Mexican history while studying at San Francisco State University.

“I don’t understand how they [her parents] didn’t ever tell me about it,” she said, with a shy laugh.

Rodriguez, who has a 15 year-old daughter, said she doesn’t attach great religious significance to the occasion.   “For me it’s a cultural experience,” she said. “It’s my culture, mi cultura. I hope my daughter passes it on to her children, and so on.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Hugo Cil, a Guatemalan who works in Hayward as a painter and who comes every year to Fruitvale to dance with a troupe of traditional Mexican dancers. Cil, who arrived in the US when he was ten, said he had very little contact with his own culture until he joined the troupe a decade ago.

“Over here they want to show the culture,” Cil said, referring to Latinos who, like him, have rediscovered their roots since moving to the US. “Over there, they want to hide the culture.”

Dressed in a red shorts, wearing a metallic paper bird head piece with long brown plumes that stood arced like a peacock’s, Cil was resting after a long day of

Traditional dancers follow the rhythm of the Mexican drums.

Traditional dancers follow the rhythm of the Mexican drums.

dancing, his daughter asleep on his lap. An older woman in a voluminous white dress standing nearby explained that the dance was designed to attract the dead “so their spirits can dance together,” she said.

Lea Ramirez, as she was called, said she has been dancing in the festival for the past seven years. She said she believes the spirits can literally come and join the dance. And she says that, unlike the evil spectres associated with American Halloween, there’s no reason to fear these spirits.

“We don’t have to be afraid of them,” she said, shaking the hand shaker to the beat of the drums behind her. “They are living with us all the time. They are beautiful spirits.”


  1. […] People « Caltrans: Bay Bridge now open Day of the Dead altars honor family, heritage » […]

  2. John Cloud on August 12, 2010 at 5:32 pm


    My name is John Cloud, I am a Artist out of San Jose CA. I paint primarily Dia de los Muertos” art. I was trying to find out how to get involved with the Oakland Festival? I would love to get some information on booth rates or even to see if there is still space available. Any info would be appreciated.

    Thank You.,
    John Cloud

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