Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dia de los Muertos, American Style

The smell of marigolds was pervasive. The vendors were almost finished setting up at the Dia de los Muertos Celebration in Oceanside, California, as I rushed to deliver my mixed media piece made from an old guitar to the art gallery. Images of surfing skeletons, skeletons skateboarding, flirting, grinning, bicycling, marrying.. peered out from booths on t-shirts, blankets, buttons, purses, aprons, postcards, match book covers. Then there were the vendors with trinkets like in Tijuana, - maybe Mexican, maybe made in China. And flower vendors. Marigolds everywhere.

A mariachi band started to play. It was 10:00 a.m. and the celebration was officially open. I wandered towards the food. The bakery booth with the special Day of the Dead breads was doing a brisk business. The decorated sugar skulls weren't edible, so I got skulls made of amaranth and honey for my grandsons. Hypnotic drumming of the Aztec Dancers drew me towards the real heart of the celebration.

Past the food, past the vendors pushing their wares, were the altars - the real reason for it all. The marigold smell became heavier, enveloping this sacred space. The local Hispanic community, gathering together to remember loved ones who had passed away, were at the same time sharing this tradition with the rest of us. Teenagers were volunteering, wearing their light blue Dia de los Muertos event staff t-shirts, with its logo graphic on the front. Family groups, babies to elderly, paid hommage to these memorial altars. The mood was reverent but not sad, and overwhelmingly an affirmation of life.

Each altar was unique. One was for a child, less than a year old judging by the photos, toys and size of the little blue plastic shoes.

There was an altar done by the MEChA student group (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) of a local Community College. A history lesson about the Tlatelolco Massacre of unarmed college students by the Mexico City government in 1968, the banner read "Recordando el Movimiento Estudiantil de Tlatelolco." The students' banner in 1968 read "No Queremos Olimpiadas. Queremos Revolucion." (We don't want Olympic Games. We want revolution.) They were gunned down by their own government. The young woman who explained it to me said, with wide eyes, "they were our age." It was so personal to her. It made the history real.

A tall beautiful older woman with a carved wooden cane struck up a conversation with me at the next altar. We stood next to the simple memorial, with a woman's name and dates, and "grandmother, mother, wife, friend" hand-lettered on a sign. Most surprising to me was seeing this woman's steam iron on the altar, realizing her hand had touched it: a making sacred of something so ordinary, and a glimpse of her life. I commented on this to my new friend. "Each altar is different" she said. She told me how when she was growing up there were no Hispanic teachers who could be role models, how she and other children were punished for speaking Spanish. "And now our kids are teachers;.. my son is a dentist." She recalled meeting Cesar Chavez in the early days, when it was just small gatherings in people's homes.

"And now we have Barak" she said. Our eyes met, both filled with tears.


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