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Oakland Day of the Dead altars shed light on political issues

on November 12, 2014

Every autumn for the last eight years, Alicia Diaz has created an altar for the annual Day of the Dead festival in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. For this year’s altar, Diaz meticulously handcrafted brightly colored paper maché skeleton figures. The vibrant figures have distinctive colors and patterns as well as a serious meaning: The skeletons represent the unaccompanied children who have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in an attempt to flee the violence in their native Latin American countries.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in English, is a Latin American tradition that commemorates the dead on November 1 and 2, when it is believed that the spirits of the deceased visit their loved ones. The first of the month is dedicated to adults and the second to children. To prepare for their visit, family and friends create an altar, placing upon them pictures of the deceased, their favorite food and drinks, flowers, and candles as offerings for their return. Other traditional elements of an altar include skeleton figures, sugar skulls, and a sweet offering called pan de muerto (Spanish for “bread for the dead”). Marigolds are the signature flower for Day of the Dead, and they are meant to guide the spirits to the altars with their bright colors and scent. In Latin America, altars are built in cemeteries and gravesites are decorated with these elements as loved ones hold all-night vigils for the deceased.

“There’s different dimensions to an altar,” Diaz said. “There’s the visual beauty of it, and admiring the beautiful objects, the colors, and the symbols.” But, she added, it’s important to remember that altars are created because a person has died.

Creating an altar can be a private ritual, but altars have also become a platform for people to express their views on social and political issues, especially those that involve death. During the annual Day of the Dead community celebrations in the Fruitvale District and at the Oakland Museum of California, local artists, such as Diaz, and members of nonprofit organizations created altars that focused on national and international political topics, including education, immigration, gun violence and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Diaz, a therapist who minored in art in college, has woven the art of altar-making into several aspects of her life. At home she keeps an altar all year round dedicated to her grandmother, from whom she believes she inherited her creative and artistic skills. Through her work as a marriage and family therapist, Diaz works with people in grief groups to create miniature altarsas part of their grieving process. And at a community level, Diaz participates in Day of the Dead celebrations by creating large altars that feature both her artwork and several of the miniature ones made by her groups.

As Diaz, a soft-spoken woman with short black hair, thick framed glasses and a magenta shirt, sat at her kitchen table next the freshly painted foam skull she finished for this year’s altar, she talked about why Dead of the Dead is meaningful to her. “Day of the Dead means, to me, a day to honor our ancestors,” Diaz said. “I start to think about my altar in July. I start to think about who it’s for, who it’s dedicated to.”

“My altar this year is about the children coming from South and Central America. Countries including our own are killing their own children, abandoning and rejecting them,” said Diaz referring to the increasing number of immigrant kids from countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who are fleeing violence and poverty.

“Kids do die on their way here,” she said.

The pieces of Diaz’s altar slowly began to come to life as she finished each piece.The golden skull was painted, the skeleton figures were complete, but she had not finished one of the main pieces of her altar—La Llorona.

According to the legend, La Llorana, the weeping woman, drowned her own children in a river and she can still be heard at night crying out for them. In Diaz’s altar, the weeping mother represented the countries that fail to care for their children. Diaz created skeletons—each one or two feet tall—to symbolize the children, and lined them up in front of a life-sized skeleton figure of La Llorona, draped in a white dress and a long white veil with red trim. The figures overlooked a small, white child’s coffin with pink silk lining next to a fake child’s grave with a crossmade of marigolds on top of it. Diaz painted the background of the altar: A path with footprints walking through the dessert, across the border, and finally arriving to the Bay Area.

Diaz also created a traditional altar next to the scene of La Llorona and the child figures. The altar had three different levels filled with food, marigolds, crosses, skulls, miniaturealtars. At the very top was an image of the Virgin Mary that Diaz made from broken glass.

And for Day of the Dead celebrations in Oakland, other local artists and nonprofit organizations also created politically-charged altars. At the Fruitvale Day of the Dead celebration on November 2, altars were created in booth tents along East 12th Street, which was closed for the festival, and at De La Fuente Plaza across the street from the Fruitvale Bart Station Transit Village.

Several altars at the festival were dedicated to the 43 student teachers of Ayotzinapa Normal School in Guerrero, Mexico, who vanished over a month ago after being arrested by authorities in the city of Iguala for protesting education reforms.

One of the altars commemorating them was created by the community group Xochitl In Cuicatl, which means “flower and song” in Nahuatl, an Aztecan language spoken in Mexico.

Portraits of each of the missing students were paired with paper marigolds and candles that formed the number 43 on the ground. Two plastic skulls lay in between the numbers 4 and 3,along with a small basket containing dry sage, a plant that is burned by indigenous groups to cleanse people and spaces of impurities.  At the back end of the altar was a table with candles, food offerings, including oranges, bread and a painting of smiling skull. Papel picado—brightly colored perforated tissue paper with intricate designs of skulls and patterns, a form of Mexican folk art—hung along the booth tent. The altar also had a written message: “Todos somos Ayotzinapa,” meaning “We are all Ayotzinapa.”

For Eloisa Madrigal, a member of Xochitl In Cuicatl, the altar was also a way to inspire young people in Oakland to continue to organize and protest against injustices in their communities—just as the missing students did—and to help pass measures that support education, such as Measure N, the recently-approved parcel tax that will fund job and career training programs for Oakland high school students. “Here in Oakland, youth are mobilizing and organizing,” Madrigal said. She added that it’s their power to express their opinions and question authority.

About five altars at the festival, including Diaz’s, were dedicated to immigrant children. Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a grassroots organization of Latina immigrant women, also created an altar in memory of MUA’s members who have died and their family members. The altar had pictures of women, men and children.“It’s a way to remember our loved ones,” said MUA member Sylvia Lopez, as she sat next to the altar surrounded by other members and their children. Lopez said the altar is also a way to send a message about the importance of keeping “our families together,” referring to the families who have been separated by deportations.

A few tents over, a line began to form at Diaz’s altar. “Reactions to my altar seem to be really good.” Diaz said. “People seem to really connect to La Llorana.” But most of the people were waiting to sign the large golden skull, adding to it the names of their deceased loved ones. Every year, Diaz paints a skull with several layers of gold paint, and by the end of the festival, it is covered with hundreds of names. As people sign the skull, they often speak to Diaz about those they have lost. “I had a woman tell me that she had a lot of names to write on the skull,” Diaz said. “I held the skull while she wrote all of the names. She looked at me and she had tears in her eyes.”

Diaz began to use altar-making as a form of therapy in 2004 through her work with grief groups at La Clínica de la Raza, a public medical clinic in the Fruitvale District. At first, Diaz’s knowledge on Day of the Dead and altar-making was limited, because she did not grow up practicing the tradition. After doing research, she began to incorporate altar-making as a therapeutic activity to help people in the grief groups to help mourn the loss of a loved one. The group members created miniature altars for their loved ones, using 8-by-9-inch wooden boxes that Diaz and her husband put together.

“Altar-making is a process of grieving,” she said—as people created an altar they would laugh, cry and think about what their family members really liked, so they could incorporate those detailsinto the altar. Diaz continues to use the activity in her work with grief groups in Contra Costa County, and occasional one-day workshops through La Clínica de la Raza.

It can also be a way for the altar-maker to express other feelings, like anger, frustration over deaths that people feel are unjust, or tragic.

At the October celebration at the Oakland Museum of California, Diaz and several other local artists had put together a display that often focused on those whose deaths came far too soon. Diaz’s display was composed of several of the miniature altars created by the West (Women) Clínica de la Raza Grief Support Group, which were specifically dedicated to young people, such as their sons. One in particular was dedicated to a young man. It included his picture, the logo of one of his favorite sports team—the Raiders—and objects that represented his hobbies: a mini soccer ball and a picture of him skateboarding.

Meanwhile, students from the Media Academy at Fremont High School in Oakland created an altar in to symbolize the death of education. Words like “education,” “equity” and “disparities” were written across the covers of books that were laid out on the altar. “Although the high school dropout rate has improved significantly, we have to be honest within the inner city, African American teens and Latino teens are not excelling as well as they should be,” said Jasmene Miranda, a teacher and mentor at the media academyas she sat next to the altar with her daughter.

The students also helped produce a video called “The Death of Education,” which played on a flat screen above the altar.  The video showed students eerily roaming school halls, wearing paper skeleton masks, dressed in dark colors. Writing flashed across the screen in between scenes with quotes such as:“High school dropout are more likely to apply for and receive public assistance than graduates of high school,” and, “In the U.S., high school students commit about 76% of crimes.”

“You look at schools in the hills [in Oakland] versus a school like as Fremont High School that’s in the flatlands, and see that you have great teachers, great administration and great kids,” said Miranda. “But you can walk on campus and look for computers and not really find them. You can walk on campus and see blatant gaps within equity.”

Another altar was dedicated to the members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Questioning (LGBTQ) community who have died as a result of hate crimes or from AIDS. A rainbow flag was spreadover the ground as the base of the altar, and laid upon it were pictures of the deceased, including one of Gwen Araujo, a teenage transgender woman who was murdered in Newark, California, in 2002, and Pedro Zamora, a Cuban-American AIDS educator and television personality who shared his experience living with the disease on MTV’s show The Real World San Francisco in 1994.

“There is a lot of violence, homophobia and transphobia,” said Esteban Cuaya- Muñoz who works with transgender women and bisexual and gay men of color between the ages of 18 and 29 in the Community Health Education Department at La Clínica de la Raza. “Through their deaths, these individuals have impacted legislations, policies and national coverage on issues affecting the LGBTQ community.”

Araujo’s death led to enactment of Assembly Bill 1160, known as the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act, which allows judges to instruct jurors to not let any anti-gay biases affect deliberations. Zamora’s role as a TV personality raised public awareness on HIV and AIDS.

For Muñoz, it was important to honor these people and to be part of the Day of the Dead celebration. “We still practice culture, tradition and spirituality,” Muñoz said referring to the LGBTQ community. “By bringing the altar here, we are making a statement that we are part of the community.”

Members of the youth organization 67 Sueños created an altar dedicated to child immigrants as well as people who died a result of conflicts with the police. The ground level of the altar was dedicated to the children and included aframed picture ofNoemi Álvarez Quillay, a 12-year-old immigrant from Ecuador who was found dead, hanging from a shower rod at a shelter for minors near the US-Mexico border. A New York Times article titled “A 12-Year-Old’s Trek of Despair Ends in a Noose at the Border” on the story of the young girl was placed on the altar for people to learn more about her journey and death.

On a table above, were about ten glass candles known as veladoras,dedicated to individuals who have died as a result of gun violence or police-related conflicts. Each of the candles had the face of an individual and their name, including Oscar Grant,who was fatally shot by a BART Police officer at the Fruitvale BART Stationin 2009, and Alejandro Nieto,who was fatally shot in March during a police-related incident at San Francisco’s Bernal Hill.

Before Day of the Dead arrived this year, Diaz already had ideas for future altars including re-usingthe six, large golden skulls that she has accumulated over the years she has participated in the Fruitvale festival.The altar in her home dedicated to her grandma, will stay up all year as she uses it to greet and commemorate her everyday.

Diaz also plans on continuing to use the tradition of altar-making as a form of therapy. “I like the therapeutic part to it,” Diaz said. “One of the phases of grieving is denial. The Day of the Dead doesn’t let you deny that a person has died.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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