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Dia de los Muertos

Oakland museum honors school shooting victims in Día de los Muertos ofrenda

on October 22, 2022

Mariachi music will ring through the Oakland Museum on Sunday as the smell of copal, a traditional Aztec incense, fills the museum’s newly renovated garden. 

The Oakland Museum of California’s Día de los Muertos one-day festival will return for the first time in-person since 2019, with seven ofrendas on display from noon to 4 p.m.

A central part of Día de los Muertos is creating ofrendas to honor departed ancestors and bring them back to the land of the living, by offering gifts, like tamales and sugar skulls. 

“In American culture, we really don’t celebrate our ancestors,” said Rebecca Rocco, a member of the museum’s Día de los Muertos volunteer committee. “I just think that it’s something very healing for a lot of people to be able to celebrate those that are no longer with us.”

The committee creates an ofrenda every year. When it came time to pick a theme for this year’s ofrenda, Isabel Perez, a San Leandro High School senior, suggested honoring the lives of young people who have died in school shootings. 

Dia de los Muertos
Childrens’s books and school accessories in the Oakland Museum’s Dia de los Muertos ofrenda. (Bella Arnold)

The committee embraced the theme, finding it a fitting gesture, said Bea Carrillo-Hocker, a longtime committee member. “To commiserate with the communities around the museum, to say, ‘You know, we feel your pain and we’d like to mourn with you, the community.’” she said. 

The museum’s ofrenda, or altar, has three tiers to symbolize earth, purgatory and heaven. It mixes traditional fixtures, like cempasúchiles (or marigolds) and pan de muerto with thematic elements, like children’s backpacks, shoes and math workbooks. 

In addition to the museum’s ofrenda, there will be ofrendas by Black Girls Brilliance at Montera Middle School, La Clínica de La Raza: Cultura y Bienestar, the Native American Health Center, Oakland Asian Cultural Center, Richmond High School and Alma Latina and the Queer Healing Arts Center. Each community organization has the opportunity to choose their own theme, like the museum did with their ofrenda. 

The Oakland Asian Cultural Center’s ofrenda will honor people whose deaths have been politicized, said Stephanie Hoang, the center’s program director. The center’s ofrenda, she said, “is ultimately a celebration of their lives,” though it also is an indictment on the country’s health system and an acknowledgement of how those deaths were reduced to statistics.

Hoang said honoring the lives and legacies of ancestors is central to her culture, as a Chinese-American, though the way to portray that is different from the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos. 

Dia de los Muertos
The Oakland Museum’s Dia de los Muertos ofrenda honors school shooting victims. (Bella Arnold)

Traditional ofrendas use colorful papel picado garlands to represent the union of life and death, a central theme of Día de los Muertos. However, the Oakland Asian Cultural Center will represent this sentiment through paper crane garlands. 

The marriage of many cultures, myriad program offerings, community ofrendas and vendors make the museum’s celebration unique.  

“Oakland has always been about bringing lots of cultures together and building that understanding and that really special sauce,” Hoang said. “Representing what grief and mourning and celebration of life means to us and bringing in our own cultural practices into this space feels so representative of Oakland.”

Ticket prices for the museum’s festival start at $10 for non-members, but the museum’s ofrendo will be on display to view for free until Nov. 27. 

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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