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Oakland museum celebrates Chicano rights and Dia de los Muertos

on October 21, 2019

On Saturday, strings of colorful papel picado, decorative paper banners, were strung above the Oakland Museum of California’s outdoor stairways and concrete paths for the 25th annual Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration. A centuries-old fusion of the Catholic All Saints and All Souls Days with indigenous Mexican traditions, Dia de los Muertos is a two-day holiday that celebrates the lives of friends and family who have passed away.

The event coincided with the October 16 opening of a special exhibition called ¡El Movimiento Vivo! Chicano Roots of El Día de los Muertos. The exhibition, which runs through February 2020, features posters, artwork and other memorabilia, and chronicles the role that Chicano activists in the 1970s played in bringing the tradition to the United States.

Erendina Delgadillo, an associate curator of history at the museum, led a tour of the exhibition prior to the noontime kickoff of the community celebration in the museum’s sculpture garden. The Chicano rights movement, Delgadillo said, was born and nurtured in tandem with other civil rights movements that began in the 1960s and 70s as a response to racism and other forms of political and social oppression.  Delgadillo said that today’s political and social climate means that it is appropriate to remind people of the Dia de los Muertos tradition in California. 

“The little-known story of how Dia de los Muertos came to California, how it crossed that border very conscientiously, is something that we’re really excited to share with folks this year,” Delgadillo said.

The exhibition’s plaques and photographs—captioned in English and Spanish—document the social and political conditions leading up to the struggle for civil rights for Mexican Americans. In the California of the mid-20th Century, an influx of Mexicans had begun to arrive through the U.S. government’s bracero (laborer) program, which recruited Mexican men to work in agriculture and construction. Conditions were generally dire; men were fumigated—sprayed with insecticide—at the U.S.-Mexico border before being placed in segregated labor camps where unsanitary conditions and disease were rife. Outside the camp, the braceros faced physical violence and intimidation from white communities, which restricted their freedom of movement. 

In 1972, Dia del Los Muertos emerged as a notable milestone in expressions of Chicano identity, through the work of activist organizations based in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento.  The activists were hoping to address systemic inequities, from housing discrimination to mob lynching suffered by Mexican-Americans and braceros.

Activists and artists, Delgadillo said, turned to Dia de los Muertos practices as well as familial traditions, particularly those from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, as a means of self-empowerment. There was a spiritual element to the work, Delgadillo said, as people’s suffering and trauma extended to a diminished sense of self and identity. “I’ve always known Dia de los Muertos as a political tradition,” Delgadillo said, “one that both brings community together, but also communicates some information about the political and social change that we are hoping to see.” 

These vanguard activists of the Chicano movement in the 1970s, known as elders, would pass on their skills, aesthetic sense, and political consciousness to subsequent generations. The ¡El Movimiento Vivo! exhibit includes artist Richard Rios’ controversial ceramic sculpture called Cholo (first displayed at the museum in 1984), black and white documentary photographs by mid-century photographer Leonard Nadel, and vibrant contemporary Chicano identity posters by Dignidad Rebelde, a graphic arts collaboration between visual artists Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza.

Oree Originol, a young Fruitvale-based visual artist originally from Los Angeles, who created a large Dia de los Muertos-themed mural for the exhibition, spoke about the influences of the holiday and Chicano identity on his work. His murals featured stylized circles representing marigolds (believed to guide the spirits of the dead to their altars with their luminous color and pungent blossoms), and a grinning calavera skull that symbolizes the universality of death, which, Originol said, is not inherently “bad or good.”

He said that his art draws on everyday shapes, as well as the more general theme of diversity, from one’s physical appearance to their personal identity. “I use shapes as a way to tell my stories,” he said.  “As someone like myself who wasn’t raised with a Chicano identity, over the years it’s been a dream of mine to reclaim that.”

An ofrenda at the OMCA entitled “Radical Monarchs” honors historic racial and social justice leaders in the United States.

Other works exhibited included decorative altars, known as ofrendas, which serve as a vivid record and celebration of a dead loved one’s life: They contain framed portraits, plump marigolds, candles, pieces of art and other ephemera. One such ofrenda, entitled El Movimiento Nunca Muere (The Movement Never Dies), pays homage to Chicano activists in the Fruitvale district who helped establish Spanish-speaking social service agencies such as La Clinica de La Raza. This ofrenda was created by the members of the Fruitvale History Project, a group that records the history of political activism in the area between the 1960s and 80s.

Most ofrendas are not particularly political in nature, but reflect the respect given to a loved one or well-respected community member after their death. “What’s beautiful about the tradition of Days of the Dead is that it gives us an opportunity to reflect on who were our heroes,” said Roberto Vargas, a committee member for the museum’s annual celebration.  Other than just the illustrious, he said, heroes could be a mama, a tia (aunt), or primos (cousins), or other members of a person’s family.   

In the museum’s spacious outdoor sculpture garden, the mild and slightly breezy midday weather attracted a multicultural and multiethnic crowd. Parents called out in Spanish, Spanglish and English to their energetic children, whose beaming faces were painted like black and white calaveras, as they chased each other across the lawn. Some children, who appeared to prefer expending their energy with their hands, were seated at long craft tables, making their own marigolds out of gold, orange, and yellow paper as teenage volunteers guided them.

Luz Alvarez Martinez, a longtime Dia de los Muertos committee member at OMCA.

Heady wafts of incense billowed from ceremonial bowls and over the lawn, cleansing what the organizers of the day’s festivities had deemed a sacred place. Vendors sold sugary pan de muerto, a bread offered to the souls of the dead as sustenance for their journey into the afterlife. Grinning calaveras made of Styrofoam were also on display for sale, along with Dia de los Muertos-themed tote bags and chunky bracelets made of different colored stones.

Irma Aben, a vendor who was bright and peppy in an embroidered dress with a flower tucked behind her ear, has been selling traditional Mexican jewelry and other decorative arts for over 30 years at her shop, Stella Boutique, in Castro Valley. When asked why she has been running a stand at the museum’s annual celebration for the last five years, she chuckled. “It’s always been my passion. It’s my heritage. It’s my people,” she said.

The mood was upbeat and educational, and the festivities, the first a traditional danza—dance—were narrated in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl, the language of the indigenous Mexica people. Forming a wide perimeter around the ceremonial ofrenda and guided by the heart-thumping beat of traditional drummers, several dancers in feathered headdresses and colorful indigenous garb ululated, bowed and spun in unison for several minutes. After the performance, attendees were invited to place dried flower petals on the ofrenda, and to think about loved ones they wanted to honor. Attendees were also asked by the event’s organizers to think about the migrant children who they said are suffering at the border due to detention and brutality from local law enforcement and immigration authorities.

“This is about positive energy,” Vargas said as he surveyed the lawn where Quenapas, a Puerto Rican Bomba music youth ensemble led by instructors Shefali Shah and Hector Lugo, performed catchy folkloric songs. He said that the Dia de los Muertos celebrations are not just about honoring the dead, but celebrating and preserving life—including not only the natural world but the community of mankind. His face turned somber for a brief moment. “We need to help preserve things for our next generation,” he said.

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