Skip to content

The Oakland Museum of California hosts 17th annual Day of the Dead celebrations

on October 24, 2011

The Oakland Museum of California was adorned with vibrant colors, packed with people wearing morbid costumes and fragrant with the smell of fresh marigolds on Sunday afternoon for the museum’s 17th annual Dia de Muertos community celebration and exhibition.

Kids and adults with painted faces wandered around the museum’s lawn, buying handmade tortillas and jewelry, and dancing to Mexican music as they celebrated Día de Muertos, Spanish for “day of the dead.”  The theme for the exhibition, which started October 12, is “Love & Loss.” The Dia de Muertos holiday is traditionally celebrated November 1 and 2.

Standing on the sidewalk, dancing with her friends on Sunday, Carmelita LaRoche said she was excited to be at the event. “Día de Muertos is important to me because it’s a part of my culture,” said LaRoche, a 65-year-old Mexican native who has lived in Oakland for 43 years. “I like to share this day with my friends because it’s new to some people.”

Día de Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday that can be traced back more than 2,000 years. The holiday honors the dead but also mocks death.   People pay tribute to their relatives and friends by decorating altars, and make fun of death by dressing up as skeletons.

In Mexico, people gather in cemeteries and build altars that include offerings to the dead. Loved ones pack the altars with the favorite things of the deceased—including pictures, memorabilia, foods and drinks. The altars often include marigolds and a burning grass.

Some believe that scents and items will encourage spirits to visit and hear the prayers of their loved ones. “In the cemeteries, everybody is celebrating,” LaRoche said as she danced to music being performed by a live band. “My brother liked tequila, so we take tequila to the cemetery.”

LaRoche was wearing a white dress with orange, blue and green flowers she bought from Mexico, jacaranda earrings designed with skeletons, and a set of matching angle and wrist bracelets made of skulls. The right side of her face was painted with a black and white heart.

Many of the visitors Sunday wore funeral-like attire — everything in black — black dresses, hats, shoes, pants, shirts and stockings. Some wore masks decorated with glitter, feathers, and paint.

Inside the museum, there were sculptures, paintings, and displays of altars from local schools and community groups, like Peralta Elementary and Clinica de La Raza.

“This is La Cabezota — in English it’s called ‘the big head,’” said Daniel Camacho, 44, an artist whose work was a part of the Día de Muertos art exhibit at the museum, as he lifted from his own ordinary-sized head the gigantic paper maché head decorated with glitter, paint and blonde hair made from rope, to take a good look at what was happening around him.

Some of the most popular pieces during the celebrations are sugar skulls.

“Can we eat these?” one girl said to her friend as she inspected a skull displaced at a vendor’s table.

“You can, but it’s not so good to eat,” Miguel Angel Quintana, 51, a vendor who selling sugar skulls made of melted sugar, said to the girl in Spanish. “It’s just for decoration.”

Every year for the last 23 years, Quintana comes to the United States for four weeks to teach people at schools, museums, libraries and cultural centers about the traditions of Dia de Muertos. One of those traditions is making sugar skulls.

“I am the fifth-generation skull maker in my family,” he said through a translator, as he pointed to the brown colored molds he uses to make the skulls. “My father got these molds from his father.”

Quintana is from Puebla, a state in the central region of Mexico, near Mexico City. For Sunday’s event, he brought sugar, a portable stove, paint, and his molds. To make the skulls, he heated sugar until it melted and then poured it into the mold and then let it set. Most of the skulls on display were already made, so he just personalized them by painting names on the front. Quintana doesn’t speak English, so his customers who didn’t speak Spanish wrote names on white notecards.

“I do this for three months out of the year,” Quintana said. “In Mexico, we sell them by the thousands because everyone buys them to give as gifts.”

As a little girl wearing a colorful mask picks up one of the skulls on display, Quintana said, “We use these for two things: to place on the altar of the dead people and to give to give people of loved ones who have died.”

While a lot of the crafts and decorations are jokes, the ritual ceremonies at the festival were taken seriously.

One such ceremony was the “Ofrenda,” or offering — this one for war victims — which involved singing, praying and dancing.  Before the ritual began, Gerardo O. Marín, 29, who is a member of Xochipilli, a Latino men’s ritual group, blew in a conch, calling all four directions. A man then joined in on frame drum, followed by a conga drum, a flute, a violin, and a rattler. The smell of copal resin filled the air as the “curandera,” the healer, walked around with a smoking tube to spread the smell.

“She’s giving a limpia—cleaning the energy of a person,” said Guillermo Ortiz, 63, as he pointed to the to the female curandera spreading the smoke.

While the smell travelled, people circled around the altar, which was filled with candles to honor people who lost their lives in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A black casket with the American flag inside sat in front of the altar.

People stood around listening and singing to the music in Spanish, as the curandera led the crowd in a song.  Most of the participants closed their eyes as the members of Xochipilli called prayed.

“Death is not treated in the same way as it’s treated in American culture,” Ortiz said.  “In Mexico, death is the other side of life.  It’s nothing to fear or dread, but something to embrace.”

The Día de Muertos exhibit runs until December 11 at the Oakland Museum of California.

Oakland North welcomes comments from our readers, but we ask users to keep all discussion civil and on-topic. Comments post automatically without review from our staff, but we reserve the right to delete material that is libelous, a personal attack, or spam. We request that commenters consistently use the same login name. Comments from the same user posted under multiple aliases may be deleted. Oakland North assumes no liability for comments posted to the site and no endorsement is implied; commenters are solely responsible for their own content.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to:

Latest Posts

Scroll To Top