Several mornings a month, retired UC Irvine linguistics professor Richard Barrutia stopped by the Bowers Kidseum in Santa Ana, where he did magic tricks, played his guitar and sang folk songs in Spanish and English.
His audience, children in the Pre-School Discoveries program, looked forward to his visits.
"Children have very few experiences with music that aren't blaring," said Genevieve Barrios Southgate, director of children's education. "And [to see] someone with patience teach them sweet songs of brotherhood and love was heartwarming."
Barrutia, a longtime supporter of the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, died in July at age 73. But his spirit lives on this month at the Kidseum, where Southgate has set up a Day of the Dead ofrenda, a personalized altar, in Barrutia's honor.
The colorful, four-tiered altar follows a centuries-old Mexican tradition of honoring deceased loved ones by erecting altars in their homes and decorating family members' graves. The altar will be the focal point of the Kidseum's annual Dia de los Muertos Festival.
The two-day festival, Oct. 30 and 31, will include an educational presentation by Southgate on the customs of the Day of the Dead, which blend pre-Columbian Indian beliefs and Roman Catholicism.
In Mexico, the home altar is the central point of the celebration in honoring the souls of those who have died within the past year. How elaborate a home altar is depends on how affluent the family is, Southgate said.
The altar she built in Barrutia's honor is laden with skulls made of sugar and meringue, small folk-art skeletons, candles, flowers, Day of the Dead bread in the shape of a body at rest, cut-paper designs and colorful Mexican rebozos (traditional women's head coverings).
And, as tradition dictates, the altar includes personal items provided by the Utah-born Barrutia's family: photographs of Barrutia, his guitar, the medal he received from the king of Spain when he was knighted for his service to scholarship in Hispanic letters, two of his paintings, his paints and brushes, his bag of magic tricks and a copy of the linguistics book he wrote.
There's even a bottle of Barrutia's favorite brand of Scotch and plates of his favorite foods.
"He was Basque, and he loved lamb, but he adopted the Mexican culture as his own, so there's also chicken mole and tamales," said Southgate, explaining that it is believed the spirit will be hungry after its journey home. A glass of water is also set out in case the spirit is thirsty.
Before an altar is built, Southgate explained, the family will sanctify and purify the area with frankincense, which is sprinkled on hot coals to release its aroma.
Putting the finishing touches on Barrutia's altar, Southgate dropped marigold, rose, lily and carnation petals on the floor. The multihued pathway usually goes all the way to the front door, she explained, "to lead the spirit back to his ofrenda."
Money is also left on the altar "in case the spirit has any expenses going back to where it came from," she said. "Although family members love and respect the spirit they don't want them hanging around afterward because they can get into mischief."
Growing up in Santa Ana as a second-generation Mexican-American in the '40s and '50s, Southgate, 57, said her family never set up Day of the Dead altars in their home. Neither did any of the Mexican families they knew.
Her father had come to this country as a boy with his migrant farm-worker parents in 1917 from Zacatecas, a town in central Mexico where the Day of the Dead--actually observed Nov. 1 and 2--was not celebrated.
"Most of the early immigrant families immigrated from areas where the railroad went, and the railroad didn't go out into those little indigenous villages way down south" where the Day of the Dead tradition flourished, she said.
Although the Day of the Dead celebrations are increasing in popularity in areas of this country that have large Mexican populations, Southgate said, home altars are still not too common in the average Mexican-American household.
"Those who do put up Day of the Dead altars are either more recent arrivals who have brought the tradition from those areas with them or they are Mexican-Americans who are returning to their traditions," she said. "Most of the ofrendas you'll see in California and the Southwest are creative ofrendas by artists."
Southgate said many of those who do build Day of the Dead home altars buy supplies in Tijuana. But some local Mexican shops and bakeries sell the folk-art skeletons and Day of the Dead bread and sugar skulls. The Bowers Gallery Store also sells the skeletons and the mold, meringue and frosting dyes for making sugar skulls.