Dia de los Muertos
Did I learn about Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead while growing up in Southern California or from my Mexican step mother and dozens of step-in-laws? No; despite the fact that I was an honorary Mexican I had to come all the way north to Seattle Washington and work at the Seattle Art Museum and make friends with Carlos Contreras to discover this strange and wonderful tradition.
“Old World New World” was an exhibition of photography that explored how new traditions layered over ancient ways; this was my first exposure to the Day of the Dead during “film night”. At first I thought it was creepy-ew who wants to dwell on death, how sad and morbid! But after being around the photos of iguana Goddesses and altar parades and picnics on graveyards, the idea of altars in remembrance began to grow on me.
“Altars of the Gods” was an exhibition of altars from different places and ideologies: Altars from Nigeria for Oshun, South America for Saints, and the West Indies for Santeria, to name a few. We even had our own little beach at the back of the gallery where I took to spending my lunch breaks to ponder the universe. Visitors left offerings as a spontaneous reaction to this alternative world: parrot feathers, money, candy, crystals, rosaries, medals. Every where this traveling exhibition went, it changed and evolved according to how the people reacted to what they saw and felt.
Every October Carlos, who was once the curator of the Mexico City Museum would build a Day of the Dead altar in the front lobby for all to see. When I watched him work with such care, I began to understand his altars, they had skeletons and skulls and photos of dead people, and yet my friend was serene as he worked, he was full of love. Story has it that it was Carlos, who while working at El Cento de la Raza, began the tradition of building Dia de los Muertos in the Northwest; I like to think that is true. It was his way of helping people feel proud of who they were and where they came from.
When Carlos died, we built an altar on his desk, then we built an altar in the Garden Court, then there were sand paintings with hundreds of flickering votives, Mariachi music and a fiesta, a grand fiesta for our friend Carlos.
The following year a few of us got permission to build a Dia de los Muertos to carry on the tradition Carlos created. My father put together and donated a comprehensive notebook of research for our display. Many people from the museum contributed to the display with remembrances of their own. For my part I dedicated my portion of the table to the memory of my mother, Hendrika: her friends called her Rickey. I decorated it with her art work and crafts and photos of her camping on her honeymoon, wearing a cowboy hat and smiling. Rickey would have been proud to have her art in a museum on display for so many people.
We were proud of our altar and keeping Carlos’ tradition alive. I learned that the altars are not only built of sugar skulls and marigolds and photos, the foundation of our altars was pride in where we come from and who we are and the secret mortar the holds it together is a love beyond life and death that is a light in our heart for all time.