DIA DE LOS MUERTOS
Annual festival with Mexican roots honors lives of the deceased
Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writer
Victoria Vargas chose carefully: ramen noodles, lollipops, a miniature bottle of mezcal, a chocolate bar, dried beans, lemon tea -- all of her brother Antonio's favorite foods.
To honor her brother, who died this summer, Vargas built an altar at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco for this weekend's Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead commemoration. A copper and cement collage represents the earth that reclaimed him, a cascade of holographic squares signifies her tears for his passing, and photos of him -- slipped free from their frames -- symbolize his freedom from what trapped him. Devastated by his death, Vargas expressed her pain through art.
"It was just what I needed," said Vargas, 51, who worked on the ofrenda, or altar, with her sister, daughter, and brother-in-law. The Brisbane artist attended high school in Mexico, where she became immersed in the three-day celebration from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 that embraces death.
Like Vargas, many Mexican Americans in the Bay Area, and others with an interest in the Mesoamerican tradition, are taking part in the celebration that establishes communion with the dead.
Across cultures and across time, shrines, altars, and memorials reflect this need. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, street memorials around "ground zero" in New York were filled with pictures of victims, poetry and flowers. Friends and family of soldiers who died from injuries sustained in Iraq log onto online shrines. On street corners and winding mountain roads, flowers, stuffed animals, crosses, and other offerings are made to the victims of car accidents and violent death.
Spontaneous and impromptu, these memorials have an authenticity of feeling that sets them apart from grand monuments.
"It's a reaction against anomie and indifference, to do these things from the heart," said folklorist Allen Dundes, a UC Berkeley anthropology professor. "It's a sign of hope that Americans aren't so callous and bruised from this barrage of death."
At www.fallenheroesmemorial.com, people post their thoughts about soldiers who died while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Soldiers' profiles detail their age and hometown, and how and when they died. Lt. Michael Vega of Lathrop (San Joaquin Co.) died March 20 from injuries sustained in Iraq. On his profile, "Karra" apologizes for not yet visiting his grave site. "I don't want to face the fact my favorite uncle is now with our creator."
Tim Rivera, a 23-year-old mail carrier in Georgia, was inspired to create the Web site after the first soldier died in Iraq in March 2003.
"The benefit of an online memorial is that it's worldwide. Anyone can access it anywhere, not only local people can visit," he said. "It's important to put a name and face to the statistics."
Street shrines to victims of shootings have become a common feature in urban areas plagued by violence. Carla Oden, a special education teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland, recreated such a shrine for a Day of the Dead show at the SomArts Cultural Center in San Francisco.
Titled "Chalk line aura," her piece features a neon outline of a body on the wall, a chain-link fence adorned with flowers, a hand-held fan from a West Oakland mortuary, and bottles of hard liquor. Day of the Dead memorializes immediate family members, and street altars do the same thing, Oden said.
In September, however, a gathering at a shrine near 94th Avenue in Oakland was the site of a shooting by rival gang members that killed one man and wounded five others. The Oakland Police Department has begun to remove street altars within days of their appearance, encouraging the victim's family to come and claim the items. Oden says the impromptu memorials should remain.
"You need to express grief, and announce to the world that violence is a problem and we need to do something about it," she said.
At the Mission Cultural Center this week, people worked in the evenings on their altars. Some were traditional, others abstract, with broader themes such as one against the war in Iraq or another in memory of the hundreds of young women slain in Juarez, Mexico. As children and adults cut cardboard, arranged dried flowers, and painted objects in their altars on the second floor, the sound of drumming from musicians practicing below rumbled up through the floorboards.
In death, Jannette Gonzalez finally has the leopard couch and the Chihuahua that she dreamed of having. Her daughter-in-law, Sophia Castaneda of Daly City, created a skeleton figure of Gonzalez, clad in a red lace dress, reclining on the sofa. Born in Hong Kong, Castaneda learned about the Day of the Dead from Gonzalez, 54, who died last year from a brain hemorrhage.
"She was the best mother in-law. I learned a lot from her," said Castaneda, who sat with her own Chihuahua, India, in her lap.
In the United States, the communal celebration of Day of the Dead emerged in the early 1970s, following political movements that spurred Mexican Americans to reclaim their ancestral heritage. In the decades since, the practice has attracted people of many faiths and backgrounds.
Rosa de Anda, curator of the Mission District show, stood beside the exhibit's central altar, a spiral of moist earth and grass. Offerings of water, bread and salt occupied the four corners of the altar, and kneeling skeletons, arms outstretched, stood guard. The daughter of farmworkers, de Anda immigrated as a child from Jalisco, Mexico to the East Bay. Her family brought along its traditions, including Dia de los Muertos. It was the only way they knew how to live, she said.
"Death is the only thing we all share," she said. "We are here temporarily,
and we have to make the most of the situation. We have to help each other."