Dia de los Muertos: celebrating the departed with art

What’s it like to “celebrate” the dead? That’s the concept of Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday devoted to the festive commemoration loved ones who have died –and the resurrection of their memories.

Puente helps the South Coast community remember its departed loved ones by presenting an entire month’s worth of Dia de los Muertos-themed art projects in October. The month culminated in a big gathering on October 24 where people decorated individual sugar skulls, using their own sense of whimsy. Many of the sugar skulls were displayed on Puente’s community altar on October 31, at the final Pescadero Grown! Farmers’ Market.

As evening fell on Pescadero, more than 60 locals sat at long tables draped with paper in the multipurpose room at Pescadero Elementary – mostly women and children. The room buzzed with happy conversation as budding artists added glass gems, glitter flakes, shiny paper, sparkles, and every-color Day-Glo icing to their sugar skulls.

Though the premise of the holiday is slightly sad, the art is a joyful pursuit, said Irma Rodriguez, a Pescadero resident who brought her two daughters with her. Rodriguez took on a look of intense concentration as she applied a big orange pair of glasses to her sugar skull, and a stylized pink flower on top.

She explained that the skull would honor her late mother and father.

“It’s sad because they’re gone, but the happy part is remembering them,” she said with a smile.

Rodriguez said the skull would be displayed on her home altar along with some of her parents’ favorite foods, including hot chocolate, a tamale, a banana, some water and a number of other items that summon warm memories.

Learning a new tradition

In Mexico, Day of the Dead is actually stretches over three days, from October 31 (All Hallows’ Eve) to November 2 (All Souls’ Day).

Some locals are familiar with the holiday traditions from growing up in Mexico. But it’s often new to their children, who were born on the South Coast.

Johnny and Wendy Lopez got to make their first sugar skulls this year, and learn about Mexican culture at the same time. Johnny, 12, made a ‘man at the beach’ with yellow sunglasses, a mustache and a little hat made out of foil. Wendy, 8, made a princess with brightly colored flowers adorning her brow.

Said Wendy, “I’m going to keep it for a year, hidden in the closet. I’m going to eat it when I’m in the third grade. It’s going to be delicious.” Wendy’s mother Veronica wasn’t too sure about that.

The art party was one of four free weekly art sessions organized by Puente’s energetic Youth Program Associate, Alejandra Ortega. She staged earlier events for locals to paint decorative platters and enjoy adding color and collage to ‘memory boxes’ – some in the shape of little coffins, in keeping with the Day of the Dead.

Artist and Puente staffer Alejandra Ortega

Artist and Puente staffer Alejandra Ortega

Art is therapeutic as well as fun, Ortega believes. Puente has previously used art projects and other group bonding exercises to combat the symptoms of maternal depression, which can crop up anytime, but are a particular concern in communities where women live in rural isolated housing. Depression also affects Latina teenagers at a higher rate than other groups.

“At least for the time that people are here, they forget about whatever else is going on their lives,” said Ortega.

A deeper meaning

Ortega devotes more than 30 hours a week to organizing each art project. In the case of the sugar skulls, this involved molding more than 100 pounds of refined sugar into 120 skulls and preparing 28 pounds of icing, which she made herself with confectioner’s sugar and coloring gels.

Ortega has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and dreams of becoming a full-time art teacher. This is her third year of work on Dia de los Muertos, and the first year she included children as well as adults in the decorating parties. It added a new, slightly more chaotic dimension, but she liked it.

“Everyone’s skills are different, but they’re great. What everyone made is really unique.”

Some skulls had gold teeth, others tiaras. Each one was an expression of creativity and love – in honor of the people who are missing all the fun.

Those memories are what gives the project its deeper meaning, said Ortega.

“We want to know people’s lives, their traditions – and to find out who their project is dedicated to.”

The program was supported by the Bella Vista Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation Faiths Project.

Click here for more Dia de los Muertos photos.


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