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VALLEY WEEKEND : CENTERPIECE : Celebrating Life After Death : Mexican Holiday Relies on Ritual, Humor to Remember the Deceased

October 26, 1995|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soon it will be Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and Olga Ponce Furginson is making banner after paper banner covered with the most gorgeous skulls.

A world-renowned practitioner of papel picado, or Mexican paper cutting, Furginson works long into the night, punching original designs into carefully stacked sheets of green, blue, black and hot pink. She uses her own versions of traditional tools, and the designs she produces include artful variations on such traditional motifs as angels, skeletons, crosses and skulls.

Friday, Furginson will be at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Griffith Park, installing a traditional Day of the Dead altar, or ofrenda . This is the fifth such altar Furginson has put up at the museum, but this year, for the first time, the public is invited to watch and ask Furginson questions while she works. Furginson's exquisite paper banners will be part of the installation, along with sugar skulls, paper flowers, photographs and other objects associated with the Mexican holiday.

The Day of the Dead is very different from Halloween, another ancient holiday that marks the onset of winter and is associated with skeletons and other mementos mori, or reminders of death. As Mary Ann Ruelas, the Autry's assistant director of programs, explains, the Mexican holiday is not ghoulish or scary, as Halloween can be, nor does it have the misogynist overtones that witches give Halloween.

The Day of the Dead, Ruelas says, "is very much a celebration of life after death." Although the way the holiday is celebrated varies from place to place in Mexico, and now in the United States, the festivities always emphasize not the tragic finality of death, but the continuity between life and death.

Furginson, who was born in Mexico 70 years ago and now lives in Long Beach, doesn't yet know exactly what she will put on the altar. "I can't give you a drawing of what I'm going to do," she says. "You can't because it's your feeling. It's how you feel as you put it up."

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The Day of the Dead is celebrated in association with the Catholic feasts of All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls' Day (Nov. 2). But anthropologists and others say the celebration has its origins among the Aztecs and earlier Mexican civilizations. Observes Furginson: "Like everything else in Mexico, the Christian becomes a little bit combined with the Indian."

Indian aspects of the holiday include the notion that the dead perform regular work in the afterlife, reflected in the little sculptures of skeletons tootling on horns and performing other mundane tasks (called calacas ) that are a treasured part of the celebration.

On Saturday afternoon, artist David Armendariz will show children how to make calacas in a workshop at the Autry from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. (class fee is $15).

During the Day of the Dead, some people put up altars in their homes, honoring their parents or family members who have died recently. Nov. 1 is traditionally the day to remember children, the little angels or angelitos. Nov. 2--All Souls' Day--is for remembering the adult departed.

Food is almost always a part of the altar, including such standard Day of the Dead fare as pan de Muerto , a sweet bread that can be decorated with shapes that look like crossed bones or can be formed to resemble a human body or even a grave covered with plants made of sugar icing, with little heads sticking out. The Day of the Dead is more than a generic celebration of eternal life, however. It is also a way to honor family members who have died by remembering all the little things that made them special, including their jobs, hobbies and idiosyncrasies, from favorite foods to preferred brands of cigarettes.

Ruelas helped construct an earlier ofrenda at the Autry that honored her grandfather Feliz Ruelas, an Arizona rancher who died in 1929. Don Feliz had once lived in Augusta, Maine, and had learned to love lobster, so a plastic lobster was included in the altar. The museum cannot incorporate real food into its altars because it might attract pests that could threaten its collections, Ruelas explains.

"Candles are really important, too, but we can't light candles inside the museum," Ruelas says. Marigolds are also strongly linked to the holiday, but since real flowers also pose a pest threat at the Autry, only paper flowers are used.

Although the Day of the Dead is not a somber holiday, children's altars are traditionally covered with a heartbreaking assortment of favorite toys, little shoes and other mementos of their brief lives. And, of course, photographs.

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