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Dia De Los Muertos Altars Are A 'Celebration Of Their Lives'

During the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead,) people remember loved ones who have died. Traditionally, they honor the deceased with altars featuring sugar skulls, marigold flowers, photos and their favorite foods and drinks. This month, Arte Americas, in downtown Fresno, is exhibiting altars in memory of local residents and Latino icons.

In this audio postcard, Helen Rael talks about the significance of the holiday, and describes the alter she installed as part of Arte Americas’ exhibit, ‘Con Tigo en la Distancia.’ It's set to the song of the same name, by Cuban musician Cesar Portillo de la Luz, who died this year and is honored in Rael's altar. 

Dia de los Muertos is a sacred holiday in Mexico, she says. It falls near Halloween, but doesn’t include trick or treating. Rather, it kind of blends Memorial Day and Valentine’s Day, she says.

In America, we memorialize our dead during Memorial Day; in Mexico, they do it during Day of the Dead, and they give a sugar skull. In America, we give a heart, and both are parts of our body.

As part of the holiday, people build altars to honor the dead.

We memorialize them, we put pictures of them in a home altar. Also, their favorite drink or favorite pastime, whether it was playing cards or whether it was building rockets, but we do have their favorite things on their altars, along with pictures that will tell their story.

The altar she’s exhibiting at Arte Americas features marigold and lavender, the traditional holiday colors. It honors several Latino icons that recently died, including Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, and Mexican artist Ignacio Barrios.

As you get closer to the installation, if you look at Pedro Ramirez Vasquez, you will see the compass has become a skeleton form over here, and the butterfly is there, which is taking them off to the afterlife. And here you have Carlos Fuentes’ books, and you have Ignacio Barrios’ brushes that also have skeleton figures on them. And all through here you have a shot glass, tequila, we’re offering them a good shot on their way out, and the monarch butterfly follows them to thereafter.

Her goal for the altar, she says, is to inspire area students to dream big.

I thought it was important that when students come through here, that they can say, ‘this is a writer, this is a painter, this is an architect… we can too, si se puede. We can do those things as well, and that’s what we’d like students to take away from here. They can leave a footprint, they can leave a huella.

The holiday, she says, is not morbid. Instead, it’s a celebration of life.

It’s about living, about bringing back to life these people that were going to be dead a long time. If we don’t remember those before us, they die.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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