Dia de los Muertos honors dead, the arts

The Fresno BeeNovember 1, 2013 

Many central San Joaquin Valley residents will remember their loved ones today (Saturday, Nov. 2) by practicing a Mexican tradition that, they say, brings them a sense of spiritual comfort as well as closure.

Day of the Dead, known also as Dia de los Muertos, is a tradition that commemorates the indigenous belief that once a year the departed could return to earth to visit.

So believers construct altars in their homes, at gravesites and other places, bearing items to welcome them back. They include photos, favorite foods, candles and flowers. The gold of the flower of death (flor de muerto) has cultural significance.

In the United States, the tradition combines the expression of cultural identity and the celebration of the arts through the challenge of the death motif.

The central San Joaquin Valley's largest event — Arte Américas' CalaGala Dia de los Muertos Celebration — begins at 4 p.m. today at the Clock Tower on the Fulton Mall. There will be Dia de los Muertos-themed arts/crafts activities and face painting workshops as well as entertainment by samba drummers and Mexican dancers.

At sundown, a candlelight procession begins traveling eight blocks to the plaza at Arte Américas, the Latino cultural arts center at 1630 Van Ness Ave.

At the plaza, the CalaGala begins.

Aztec fire dancers will perform, and an R&B/Latin/funk/rock band, Force 'Em, will play from 7:30 to 10 p.m. There also will be food trucks. Plaza admission is $1.

This is the 26th year that Arte Américas is presenting the CalaGala Dia de los Muertos Celebration. The name of the event derives from a combination of the Spanish word for skeleton ("calaveras") and the word "gala." Officials expect more than 1,000 people to attend.

"This holiday has hit critical mass," says Frank Delgado, interim executive director at Arte Américas. "We enjoy taking this opportunity to contextualize the ancient tradition and create an experience that is culturally educational, stimulating, memorable and accessible to the community no matter what their cultural or national background may be."

Arte Américas' current Dia de Los Muertos Posada 100 exhibit features more than a dozen Dia de los Muertos altars, created by local artists and others. The exhibit runs through Nov. 10.

People say the tradition of constructing altars to remember loved ones carries spiritual significance to them.

Ruben A. Sanchez of Merced built an altar on display at Arte Américas to remember his wife, Herlinda A. Sanchez, who died in an automobile accident on Jan. 25, 2011. She was 53.

Before her death, Herlinda talked about how her mother's death — when she was age 7 — had impacted the family. A sister wore only black clothing in mourning for a year — until she experienced a vision.

"It was, 'Please take off that black clothing. Move on,' " Ruben Sanchez says.

Sanchez previously built altars for his wife, including writings about her, displayed in black frames. Then, he remembered that vision.

"I changed the frames to red. The altar helps me to come to grips with everything. She died in my arms. I believe she came to me saying, 'There was nothing you could do. Move on.'

"The art and spiritual world overlap each other. ... The altar shows our artwork spiritually to honor people, our loved ones who have passed away. If we go through a tragedy, we know that feeling, and we should be willing to help someone also going through it."

Helen Rael also created a Dia de los Muertos display at Arte Américas — "Contigo en la Distancia" ("With You Always"), honoring 12 Latinos and Latinas who have passed away. "Contigo en la Distancia" also is the title of a song by Bebo Valdes, a Cuban pianist/band leader/composer.

"Dia de los Muertos is one of my favorite Mexican holidays," Rael says. "And it was through Arte Américas that I found out about it, and so much more about our culture. I can easily say that I found my true identity through Arte. That's why it's so easy to call myself 'a born-again Mexican.' "

If you go

26th annual CalaGala Dia de los Muertos Celebration at Fulton Mall at the Clock Tower with eight-block procession to Arte Américas, 1630 Van Ness Ave. Fulton Mall celebration begins at 4 p.m.; procession begins at sundown, followed by evening entertainment at Arte Américas. Admission: $1 for admission to the Arte Américas plaza. Details: (559) 266-2623, arteamericas.org


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304 or rorozco@fresnobee.com.

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