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Dia de Los Muertos Altar Honors Katrina’s Victims

Photo by Kamau Amen Ra.

Artist Tiffany Sankary hadn't planned to build two different altars for Oakland's Dia de los Muertos Festival but when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans she knew she had to do something. Although she had already been in the planning stages of constructing an altar honoring parents, she set to work to build a second altar to honor victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Initially Sankary, a Mills alumna, wanted the altar to be a memorial listing the names of the thousand or so people killed during the hurricane. While searching the Web on her computer for a list of names, she realized that she would never be able to compile a complete list in time ‹¨« especially since so many victims remained unidentified.

So instead of a list of names, Sankary decided to create dozens of life-sized cardboard silhouettes, painted blue with white clouds to represent all hurricane victims, including those who remain nameless.

This year's 10th annual Dia De Los Muertos Festival in the Fruitvale district of Oakland on Sunday had about 40 traditional altars on display honoring the dead, but it was the Hurricane Katrina altar that stood out in the crowd. Sankary, 27, an artist, and Ruben Guzman, 44, a member of Oakland's Unity Council, doubled their efforts to bring to life not only an altar honoring victims of Hurricane Katrina but also their original idea of an altar honoring parents.

"There aren't that many places to honor those who have died and to celebrate in this culture," said Sankary. "It's healthy to use art to celebrate how people have made an impact on other's lives."

After a month of working nonstop on the altars, Guzman and Sankary set up their labors of love under commercial tents next to almost 40 others. On International Blvd. between Fruitvale and 41st, altars, vendors and performers competed for sidewalk space with almost 100,000 attendees representing a range of ethnicities. A lively group of Aztec dancers stopped and performed in front of the altars to the delight of several tots in strollers.

A cluster of kids and their parents flocked to the altar dedicated to Katrina's victims. The minimalist design left it up the festival attendees to decorate the chicken wire with colorful hand-made flowers. Tissue paper and pipe cleaners were provided, and a volunteer was on-hand to demonstrate. After attendees finished making their flowers, they added them to the bouquet, which rapidly flourished in between the cardboard cutouts of silhouettes representing victims of Katrina painted blue with white clouds.

"This is a beautiful idea," said Lorelei Enderssen of Oakland. "Interaction brings us together."

The multi-tiered altar honoring deceased parents sat gilded in hues of marigold in the tent next to the Hurricane Katrina altar. Over a dozen orange and yellow candles flickered on the altar in the sunny afternoon. Buckets of marigolds, the Aztec flower of death, sat on either side of the altar. According to Guzman, in Aztec mythology, spirits respond to the scent and color of marigolds that are used to lure them to the altar. About a dozen framed photos of parents sat on the altar. In front of each photo were smooth stones, hand-picked by the surviving children with descriptive words pasted on them such as "soulful" and "real."

Sankary and Guzman each had a photo of one of their parents whom they had lost in the past year. Last summer Guzman was teaching cartoneria, a form of Mexican paper sculpture to other artists at an art camp in Quincey, Calif., when he received a devastating phone call from family in Mexico – his mother had died. When Sankary, a student of Guzman's at Feather River Camp heard the news, she offered her condolences. After all, Sankary had lost her father within the past year , the day before Thanksgiving. The heartfelt sorrow exchanged in that moment last summer has since manifested itself in this, a collaborative endeavor.

Karen Stevenson, a Chicago native living in Oakland, stood in front of the photos of her father and stepmother resting on the altar. On the tier below was a photo of her grandmother. Teary-eyed, she reread to herself a poem on display that she had originally found in the bible of her beloved stepmother after she passed away.

Francisco Javier Martinez of San Francisco, who stopped to look at the altar, was deeply moved. After coming to the festival for seven years, he said out of all the altars he's seen, this one stood out to him the most. "They all have religious elements. This one eliminates that," he said. "The point is we are all the same and destined to the same place."

The effect of the two altars achieved what Gilda Gonzales envisioned for this year's Dia de los Muertos Festival. In serving her first year as CEO of Oakland's Unity Council, Gonzales said she wanted a more personal touch than in previous years. "It was really important to have a combination of professional artists, individuals and families [in building the altars.]"

For Guzman, la Dia de los Muertos that he had been anticipating since the summer was bittersweet. "This energy that has kept me moving is now finished," he said.

Sankary, however, gained some closure as the one-year anniversary of her father's death rapidly approaches. "I feel when I look at his picture he's saying 'I'm so proud of you,'" she said.

Those who made a flower in honor of the dead at the Hurricane Katrina altar walked away from it with a newfound appreciation for those still living. "It was great to be able to do that with my little cousin," said 14-year-old Baisy Beltran who was there with the 4-year-old boy and some friends.