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For many in Los Angeles, Day of the Dead is a chance for activism

Steve Vazquez, left, paints a paper mache skull for Day of the Dead at Self Help Graphics & Art.
Steve Vazquez, left, paints a paper mache skull for Day of the Dead at Self Help Graphics & Art.
(Michael Owen Baker/For The Times)

Joan “Zeta” Zamora came of age in her native Jalisco, Mexico, cleaning up and decorating tombstones with flowers on Day of the Dead.

So when she learned that the Florence Library in South Los Angeles was closing, she turned the commemoration of ancestors and loved ones who have died into a tool for protest.

The 36-year-old constructed an altar in Grand Park, which depicted a politician as Ernesto de la Cruz, the mariachi villain in the Pixar Animation Studios film “Coco.”

Dia de los Muertos in Los Angeles has always had a political element to it,” Zamora said.

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Following the release of Pixar’s “Coco,” in which an aspiring guitarist is cast to the underworld after defying his Mexican grandmother, the Day of the Dead aesthetic has become especially ubiquitous, used to peddle all sorts of products, from alcohol to lottery scratchers. The Mexican holiday is also used to promote an ever-growing list of events across Los Angeles County, including a bicycle ride in Wilmington and a 5K and health fair in San Fernando.

Lorena Lopez and Maria Bustamante Morales, 4, look at the Day of the Dead “Altar for Carlos Zaragoza” at Self Help Graphics & Art.
Lorena Lopez and Maria Bustamante Morales, 4, look at the Day of the Dead “Altar for Carlos Zaragoza” at Self Help Graphics & Art.
(Michael Owen Baker/For The Times)

Throughout October, vendors in downtown Los Angeles unload trucks chock-full of marigolds. The flowers, known as cempasúchil, are no longer shipped from abroad but grown in Oxnard and San Diego. Merchants bundle them up in Korean-language newspapers, then hand them over to the thousands of Angelenos who observe Day of the Dead.

Come November, they will adorn altars throughout the county.

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Despite the holiday’s commodification, for Xóchitl Flores-Marcial, a historian at Cal State Northridge, it remains an intimate family affair, with preparations beginning months in advance.

“Our entire life,” she said, “revolves around memory and holding on to the teachings of our ancestors.” For her, using the tradition as a marketing tool is “historical erasure.”

“I like to talk about it in terms of science,” she continued, “because we often forget that part when we talk about how people have appropriated only the things that look fun and festive and colorful.”

For instance, she said, there are several different varieties of cempasúchil, and because they contain a natural insecticide, they are planted among food crops in Mexico. This is why her family, Zapotecs from the state of Oaxaca, not only decorate their altars in L.A. with them, but also make it a point to include only the highest-quality corn, beans, chiles and squash in their tribute, or ofrenda.

Messages written in English and Spanish on fish-shaped paper cutouts.
Notes on paper cutout like fish at the Day of the Dead altar “Cruzando (Crossing)” at Self Help Graphics & Art.
(Michael Owen Baker/For The Times)

This, said Flores-Marcial, “is ultimately what we’re celebrating when we’re honoring our ancestors. We’re saying, ‘This is what we’ve harvested from this knowledge.’ That part, this knowledge that indigenous people have, is totally overlooked when people start appropriating these symbols.”

Her family’s customs, she added, “represent just one example of ancestor worship.”

“You can find it in the Andes, too. You can find it in Guatemala. You can find it in so many places in the Americas. It’s not only Mexican,” she said.

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Betty Avila, executive director of Self Help Graphics & Art in Boyle Heights, learned about Day of the Dead as an adult. For her and her parents, who emigrated from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, “Dia de los Muertos is very much an L.A. thing,” she said.

“I think it’s interesting for my parents to see their kids really seek out these opportunities to be further connected with home in Zacatecas and, more broadly speaking, our Mexican heritage,” Avila said.

Moreover, because Avila learned about the tradition at Self Help Graphics & Art, her understanding of it has always been rooted in political activism. The arts center, she noted, began celebrating Day of the Dead shortly after the Chicano Moratorium, in which residents of East Los Angeles took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War and the disproportionate number of casualties of Mexican descent.

Kristen Johannesen, left, Olivia Ramos and her mother, Dora Magaña, work on papier-mache paper mache skulls for Day of the Dead at Self Help Graphics & Art.
Kristen Johannesen, left, Olivia Ramos and her mother, Dora Magaña, work on papier-mache skulls at Self Help Graphics & Art.
(Michael Owen Baker/For The Times)

From the beginning, said Avila, local artists and residents have made use of traditional Day of the Dead iconography “to bring forward other issues and ideas that affect the community.” In the ’70s, for instance, the East Los Angeles-based art collective Asco combined the tradition with performance art to address “the ways that they saw community members dying all around them.” In its archives, the arts center preserves a photograph of the event, in which members of the collective not only dressed as skeletons but also as a pill, a switchblade and a syringe.

Today, Day of the Dead at Self Help Graphics & Arts maintains its activist roots, as exemplified by the altars in this year’s gallery exhibition. Among them is one created by the center’s youth committee, which commemorates children who have died while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border or in the custody of immigration officials.

In addition to traditional elements such as candles and cempasúchil, the youth committee’s altar includes candy and stuffed animals. These elements, said Karla Jacome, a student at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College and East L.A. College, represent the children who lost their lives. Because the items featured in the altar are also an ofrenda, they are meant to “give the children some comfort.”

“I really hope that these children, who passed in such difficult ways, feel how loved they are,” Jacome said.

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The altar, which displays portraits of migrant children who died, also includes a gallon of water, where the words “Suerte en su camino” (Good luck on your journey) are written in permanent marker. This message, Jacome said, speaks both to the “physical journey from the children’s home countries to the United States, as well as from life to death.”

The jug, she added, is also a form of protest, pointing to the prosecution of individuals who provided water to migrants trying to survive in the desert.

The youth committee’s installation also invites community members to write messages to the dead children on paper fish, which are then deposited in a river made of blue cloth that runs along the altar. One of the messages reads, in Spanish: “Beautiful little angels, you will not be forgotten. May you rest in peace.”

Detail from the Day of the Dead “Altar for Carlos Zaragoza” at Self Help Graphics & Art.
Detail from the Day of the Dead “Altar for Carlos Zaragoza” at Self Help Graphics & Art.
(Michael Owen Baker/For The Times)

On any given Saturday in October, the mural-laden building in Boyle Heights can be found teeming with friends and multiple generations of family members, including pets. Some of the crafts are incorporated into the arts center’s community altar, a majestic, multi-tiered piece by master altarista Ofelia Esparza. This year, it includes framed photographs of Toni Morrison, Rep. Elijah Cummings, and local rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle, all of whom died this year.

Many of those who participate in the Self Help Graphic & Arts’ weekend workshops take their work home. Often, they say they plan to make altars of their own.

The point, she said, is to bring the community together, to get people talking about loved ones who have died. The “ability to share out that loss publicly,” she added, “is also part of the healing.”


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