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Locals honor living and dead for Dia de Los Muertos

Edgar Abundis commemorates those who died in Oakland homicides. (Loren Sanchez)

The light rain didn’t stop people from attending an early celebration of the Mexican holiday Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, by the Fruitvale BART Station on Oct. 24. Participants ate authentic Mexican foods, listened to live music from different bands, and watched both Aztec and folkloric Mexican dancing. Yet the focus remained upon the traditional focal point of Dia de Los Muertos: ofrendas, or altars that serve as an annual remembrance of those who have passed on.

“The altar is for the deceased so they can return and smell the aroma of the foods that are put out,” said Auerli Sanchez, originally from Veracruz, Mexico.

As Sanchez stated, ofrendas usually serve as commemorations and offerings to the deceased, whom people believe return home that day each year. They include objects significant to the deceased – photographs, toys and foods – as well as objects associated with the dead – marigold flowers, religious symbols and candles. While many altars are dedicated to people the creators knew personally, some people make ofrendas in honor of those they never knew.

“This year, the altar is for those who were killed (in Oakland) and to commemorate those homicides,” said Luis Abundis of the altar he and his nephew Edgar Abundis created. “And I’m proud that even though it’s raining, there are people here to commemorate the dead.”

However, not all participants made altars in honor of the deceased. Some creators, like mother and son Adriana Diaz and Ernesto Castellanos, made altars in honor of Dia de Los Muertos itself.
“We made an altar to represent the Day of the Dead,” Catsellanos said. “In the altar we set an equal number of candles for balance and an arch with flowers to illuminate the past for the deceased ones onto heaven.”

Although it was not made for one of the dead, Diaz and Catsellanos’ ofrenda contains many symbolic items found in traditional altars.

“Our altar is an authentic display of what is seen in Mexico,” Castellano said. “You see the mantel, the cross, the candles, perforated paper – which is essential – but this isn’t an altar for a person; it’s an altar displaying how an altar is set up and how it should look like.”

Sebastian Sanchez, husband of the Auerli Sanchez mentioned earlier, appreciated the tribute to Mexican culture.

“It’s wonderful to come see, especially those who have Mexican roots but have never lived there,” said Sebastian Sanchez, husband of the Auerli Sanchez mentioned earlier. “People should come to learn and know how it’s done. I encourage everyone with Mexican roots to visit Mexico and really see what they hear about.”

Ofrendas, or altars made in honor of the deceased for this year's Day of the Dead. (Loren Sanchez)

In some cases, companies sponsored various ofrendas, such as Oakland artist Daniel Camacho’s altar for State Farm.

“Part of the idea was to put this together with the students from the Melrose Academy school. The students created the sugar skulls and flowers for the dead. It is also tradition to put the foods that the dead liked. It’s good culture and it makes people look back at that person who is being celebrated,” Camacho said.
Many people who came to look at the ofrendas were impressed.

“The altars were really pretty, decorative and colorful,” said observer Jessica Scalzo.

Nevertheless, the most memorable ofrendas were those with emotional significance. Gonzalo Hidalgo’s altar, entitled “Si, Se Puede,” used cornflower black beans, tree chili and paprika to pay tribute to a hot issue causing much political hysteria: illegal immigration.

“I made it as a tribute for those who cross the border illegally, work on the fields and for temporal labor workers. I have been doing this for the past eight years,” Hidalgo said.

Across the altar, Hidalgo wrote the phrase “Los Majados,” which translates to the “soaked,” “damp” or “moist.”

“Los Mojados is a name usually given to the people who cross the Rio Grande to this side of the border. This is a dedication to people I know, not my case but nevertheless it is good to mention,” Hidalgo said.

More ways to celebrate Day of the Dead 2010

1) Join Mills College club Mujeres Unidas at Mills Hall at 12:15 p.m. for the Day of the Dead on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Club members will be holding a ceremony to pay their respects.

2) Attend the Dia de Los Muertos Procession and Festival of Altars on Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. in the Mission District of San Francisco.

This is our recommended transit route:

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3) Visit Oakland Museum of California’s VIVO: Days of the Dead 2010 exhibit.