Theater & Arts

Lots of life for Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead at Brush and Easel

Laura Fraelich talks about her sugar-skull painting class at Brush and Easel Gallery in Fresno.
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Laura Fraelich talks about her sugar-skull painting class at Brush and Easel Gallery in Fresno.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Frank Delgado, executive director of Arte Américas, realized that the great maw of American commercialism – never satiated, always eager to chomp into something different – really got its teeth into the Mexican holiday of Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

But a pretty good guess might be when someone texted him a photo from Walgreens of a mariachi skeleton playing “La Bamba.”

The same goes for Rosita Arenas, a retired Fresno State professor, artist and authority on the holiday. She was stunned when she spotted at Cost Plus World Market a display of 7-inch “Muertos Nutcracker” dolls, their skeleton mouths locked in grim expressions. (Talk about a bizarre cross-holiday amalgamation.)

Read an extended interview with Rosita Arenas about her altar.

Interest in Día de los Muertos, which originated in Aztec culture, has been climbing both among Latinos and non-Latinos in recent years. Yet while the best-known elements related to the holiday have grown in popularity, such as the dancing skeletons, sugar skulls and paper banners, in isolation they have very little to do with the actual tradition, Arenas notes.

“I’ve been so disappointed and almost saddened by such a watering-down of some of the elements that are traditionally used at this time of year,” she says of her recent shopping expedition looking for Muertos merchandise. “I saw calacas (skeletons), calaveras (skulls) and papel picado (paper banners) with skulls that were not smiling, skeletons that were not dancing in celebration, and some of these did not resemble the traditional ones that are found in Oaxaca or Michoacán, two of the places in Mexico that are known for their ancient and traditional celebrations.”

Still, even with the inevitable dilution of sacred holidays that occurs when commercialism comes knocking – just how do Rudolph and his red nose fit into the story of the birth of Christ, again? – there are plenty of upsides to the increased interest in Día de los Muertos, which has been soaring among the non-Latino culture in recent years.

“I think it's wonderful as long as it is not taken out of context and that people have the opportunity to actually learn about the tradition, not just decorate for it,” says Arenas, who created a traditional altar in memory of the artist Frida Kahlo – this year’s artistic theme – in “Calaveras y Kahlo: Forever Frida,” the 28th annual Día de Los Muertos exhibition and celebration at Arte.

Another advantage: As non-Latinos are drawn to the trappings of the holiday, at least some of them are drawn to authentic institutions such as Arte Américas, where they can learn more.

“I consider it an entry point,” Delgado says.

I think it’s wonderful as long as it is not taken out of context and that people have the opportunity to actually learn about the tradition, not just decorate for it.

Rosita Arenas

The Muertos exhibition and celebration has long been one of Arte’s most popular events. It tries to combine the visual aspects of the holiday with a culminating event that brings the sacred tradition to life for the central San Joaquin Valley community, Delgado says. This year’s official celebration at Arte is Sunday, Nov. 1, though the holiday covers a three-day span, Oct. 31-Nov. 2.

Last year, 2,000 visitors crowded Arte for its annual celebration, which begins with a candlelight procession from the Fulton Mall to the cultural center, followed by a big party. This year promises to be just as big – or even bigger. (Admission is just $1.)

There are plenty of reasons for the holiday’s increased popularity, from the aesthetic (all those colorful, cheerful icons) to media (last year’s animated film “The Book of Life” prompted a big interest among children). Younger adults seem increasingly drawn to it, an example being an Arte collaboration with the thriving Fresno Arthouse gallery, which skews younger than most venues in town, titled “Noche de Calaveras” for October ArtHop.

And people always love a party.

Put side-by-side with Halloween, the holiday’s eternal neighbor on the calendar, perhaps the more somber underlying meaning of Día de los Muertos – a chance to honor departed loved ones and muse on the inevitability of death – is attracting adherents looking for something a little more substantial than simply dressing up in costumes and consuming large amounts of candy.

Debate in general about cultural appropriation – or misappropriation – can be a charged topic. Día de los Muertos, at least in the form we know it today, was itself a form of appropriation of indigenous Mexican culture by the Spanish, who moved the holiday from summer to coincide with All Saints’ Day and added Catholic trappings. The “pure” form of the holiday is mostly lost in the mists of time.

But whenever you deal with cross-cultural appropriation, things aren’t always what they seem.

Take Laura Fraedrich, who last week was teaching a ceramics class in sugar-skull painting at the Brush and Easel Gallery in northwest Fresno. At first glance, the scene doesn’t seem like a very traditional exploration of the holiday: Here is a white woman helping people paint ceramic skulls that were mass-produced in China.

Then you talk to her and learn a little about her background: Fraedrich’s ex-husband was of Mexican descent, and when she celebrated the holiday with his family, she was drawn to its celebration of life and frank acknowledgment of death. Her own family was “weird” about death, she says, not wanting to talk about it.

“I welcome a tradition like this where I can celebrate and remember,” she says.

The custom of visiting the graves of departed family members, which forms the core of the Día de los Muertos experience, is found in many cultures.

“The actual tradition is not only celebrated by the Latino culture but also by other non-Latino cultures who truly see it as a celebration of the life their loved ones lived while here in this life,” Arenas says. “This is true of the Hmong community and of course other Asian cultures as well.”

One of the highlights of the Arte exhibition this year is a nontraditional altar – more an installed mural – dedicated to the memory of Carole Gostonian, the colorful and sometimes contentious owner of the Penny Candy novelty shop in Fresno for decades. Titled “Carole’s Mandala,” it was made by Gostonian’s sister, Joyce Kierejczyk, in collaboration with Tony Stamolis, and its bright, vivid colors are drawn from icons and items from the Penny Candy shop.

An Armenian remembered in a Muertos altar? Sure, why not?

Arte divides its exhibition into two components: a selection of museum-quality installed altars in its main gallery, which this year are particularly vibrant and strong; and a collection of art pieces – mostly two-dimensional works – with a suggested theme. With Kahlo this year’s theme for the art pieces, many of the artists take delight in working the iconographic artist into their works.

Among the most striking: “Day of the Dead at Cielito Lindo” by Serg Hernandez, depicting skeletons crowded into a Los Angeles-area restaurant known for its flautas; and Carlos Cisneros’ “La Reina,” which offers a skeletal Kahlo with a thorny hairdo and cigarette in hand, a monkey on her shoulder.

Though the exhibition overall has a definite contemporary vibe this year, there’s also room for tradition. Arenas, who is traveling to Oaxaca this year for Día de los Muertos, made an altar dedicated to Kahlo that incorporates such customary components as flowers, a hummingbird and small biographical objects.

“The last touch I added was a blank canvas representing the opportunity she has to paint her self-portrait in the life she is living now,” Arenas says. “I became very emotional and empathetic of her life as I worked on and through this piece.”

That emotional pull is evident in the Arte show, perhaps another reason why Día de los Muertos continues to draw new adherents. And with popularity comes commercialism – the law of supply and demand, Delgado notes.

At the Brush and Easel sugar-skull workshop, participant Maria Hernandez-Sinclair points at her canvas shoes decorated with tiny skulls. She wears them year-round, not just for the holiday.

“I bought them at JCPenney,” she says.

Día de los Muertos celebration

  • 4-9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1.
  • Gathering at Fulton Mall in front of Peeve’s at 5 p.m., procession at 5:45 p.m., led by Aztec dancers to the celebration at Arte Américas, 1630 Van Ness Ave.
  • Charter bus will be available as a free shuttle from Arte Américas to the Fulton Mall, allowing visitors to park near the center
  •, 559-266-2623
  • Admission: $1; candles, $1 each