Miniature faces cut out of black-and-white photos smile from atop glossy black candelabra. They’re the ancestors of Oakland artist Bea Carrillo Hocker, and part of a traditional Mexican ofrenda, or altar, honoring deceased loved ones on the annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. The ofrenda, which depicts Hocker’s family’s journey from Mexico to the United States more than a century ago, is a burst of orange. A flurry of feathery monarch butterflies perch on the vintage family photos, which are surrounded by paper flowers, painted skeletons, and golden bread shaped like dolls. The items are placed atop intricate doilies and tablecloths that were hand-crocheted by Hocker’s grandmother.
“I’m sure there are these kinds of stories in all families about migration,” Hocker said. “It’s wonderful if younger people can realize that where they are in life is really because of sacrifices made by their immigrant ancestors. That didn’t dawn on me until I was grown up.”
Hocker’s altar is part of the Oakland Museum of California’s Day of the Dead exhibit and community celebration, which runs through January 14, 2018. This year’s exhibit, titled “Metamorphosis and Migration,” embraces the theme of the monarch butterfly. Each winter, millions of the butterflies travel more than 2,000 miles from Canada and the United States to Mexico, where their arrival represents a homecoming of ancestors’ spirits.
“I just really loved the symbol of the butterfly as the representation of the human soul,” said Evelyn Orantes, the exhibit’s guest curator. She said that community members approached the museum in the early 1990s to plan an authentic Día de los Muertos event that would educate visitors about the celebration’s cultural origins. “People often associate it with scary things and Halloween, when really it’s a different kind of approach to remembrance,” she said.
Sculptor Fernando Escartiz agreed. “Many people think that we celebrate death, but it’s not that,” he said. “We celebrate the lives of our loved ones who have passed on and remember them.”
As you enter the museum’s Gallery of California Art, Escartiz’s colossal smiling paper maché skeleton looms overhead, clutching a suitcase stuffed with a guitar, book, photograph, and plate of food. “I wanted to show what a migrant is and what he takes with him when he leaves one life to start another life in a different place,” said Escartiz, who lives in Mexico and the United States. “My skull has a suitcase loaded not with material objects, but with symbols, like food, music, smells. These are memories, culture, everything with which one leaves one’s life to start another, and that which one contributes to the new home.”
The sculpture was inspired by another Day of the Dead tradition: vitrinas, hand-crafted figurines of loved ones who are still alive. “We do this in order to deceive death. We make her believe that they are already dead and so she will ignore them and let them live,” Escartiz said. “Also, we believe that if we have death in mind, we will appreciate life more.”
Across the room, a large wooden ship’s mast covered in handwritten notes emerges from a navy-blue wall. Artists Chris Treggiari and Peter Foucault created this memorial last December after the Ghost Ship warehouse fire claimed the lives of 36 people, including their late colleague, Alex Ghassan. The installation now includes the names of four people who died in a San Pablo Avenue building fire that occurred three months after the Ghost Ship fire, displacing around 100 people.
“It was a difficult project to work on, revisiting those emotions,” Foucault said. “We feel very fortunate to have it be part of the Day of the Dead celebration in the sense that it can be a place where people share, and reflect not only at our altar but at all of the altars in this exhibition.”
Nearby, paper lanterns created by students at Oakland International School and Thornhill Elementary School hang from the ceiling. The lights were inspired by Obon, a Japanese festival that also honors ancestral spirits.
The exhibit also reflects artists’ reactions to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. That too, Orantes said, is in keeping with the theme of transformation. “Many retreat into this cocoon, others are reborn as activists,” she said.
Rafael Jesús González, an artist, Peralta Community College professor, and Berkeley’s first poet laureate, said that the U.S. flag draped over his ofrenda is a nod to an “empire” that created “waves” of immigration to the U.S. with policies such as the war on drugs. González’s ofrenda displays Xochipilli, the Aztec god of art, song, dance, and flowers, in the guise of the god of death, surrounded by musical and artistic instruments. The altar is a tribute to artists who have died while migrating, he said.
“I hope people grow conscious that immigrants don’t come here as beggars,” González said. “When an immigrant comes, they enrich the culture.”