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Grave Events

The County's Arts Community Will Offer Two Celebrations Arising From Mexico's Day of the Dead Traditions

November 01, 2000|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spirits of the dead are emerging from their graves today to celebrate a drink, a meal or a dance with the living. At least that's the notion behind El Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead--Mexico's answer to Halloween.

Except those spirits descending on Orange County may find a few unexpected surprises at the end of their journey--two versions of the Mexican holiday. While the Huntington Beach Art Center's new exhibit "Altars and Installations" takes a detour from familiar depictions of Day of the Dead rituals, Santa Ana's Artists Village offers a more traditional public celebration, with workshops and gallery exhibits showing how the holiday is observed in various Mexican villages.

Celebrated on Nov. 1, El Dia de los Muertos has origins that date to 1521, when Spain conquered Mexico and pagan indigenous rituals of death fused with the Roman Catholic feast of All Souls Day, which also honors the dead with prayer.

Participants believe that the spirits of dead relatives return to their families and homes, where altars called ofrendas are cleaned and decorated to welcome them.

The new exhibit "Altars and Installations" at the Huntington Beach Art Center expands on the concept of altars.

"I wanted the element of surprise in this show by giving the artists free rein to create an altar to honor someone or thing that's important to them," said art center curator Darlene D. DeAngelo, who did not curate the show but helped organize it. "There are even altars to those who are alive."

Generally, altars are made for the deceased and are intended to allow loved ones to kneel in prayer, stand or observe the memory of a person.

The deceased's favorite possessions, foods and drinks adorn the altars. Offerings might include hot meals, tamales, sugar skulls, pan de muertos (bread of the dead), toys, cigarettes and liquor. Altars traditionally abound with incense, candles, colorful paper cutouts and yellow marigolds called zempasuchil.

In the exhibit, modern elements such as compact discs, digital prints, bowling balls, a tackle box, computers and motherboards make an appearance.

Danielle Segura, 35, of Redlands helped coordinate the exhibit and is one of the featured artists.

"I have two very prominent cultures in my life with my husband being Mexican and me being American," said Segura, whose altar piece is "To you Health, Milagros (Miracles) in Felt."

"In Southern California, we have so many cultures around us that we can keep the customs and build on it," she said. "All the artists who did nontraditional altars started from the traditional altar, but we're adding our personal layers to the tradition. There's a wonderful cultural evolution that's happening in our society particularly in Southern California. And that's where you get these hybrids."

The altars and installations made by 25 featured artists of various cultures are done in the spirit of the Day of the Dead. The artists are painters, performers, sculptors and installation artists. Some are experts at creating altars. Others had never heard of the holiday.

Day of the Dead deals with symbols. According to custom, four white candles light the cardinal directions for the dead to return to their loved ones. Yellow marigolds represent the earth and regenerative forces of nature. A glass of water, the source of life, is put out for thirsty souls after their long journey. Burning incense represents the supernatural. Sugar skulls, or Calaveras, bear the name of the dead. The sweet treats especially for children associate pleasant sensations with the symbols of death.

Traditionally, prayers are said at the altar in the evening. Groups of families then proceed to cemeteries where graves of the departed relatives are cleaned and decorated with marigolds. Once there, incense is burned and food is offered until dawn.

In Santa Ana Artists Village's celebrations, El Dia de los Muertos offers something closer to Mexican tradition, including a downtown procession Saturday.

This is the first time the Artists Village has formally organized a community festival for the Day of the Dead.

"We created the procession because it represents a community together as a family, a group, a village," said Teresa Dutrem, chairwoman of the festivities in downtown Santa Ana. "That's what Dia de los Muertos is about."

The procession begins 6 p.m. Saturday at 2nd Street and Broadway and continues north on Broadway to 4th Street before it winds back to 2nd Street. Organizers are asking that participants bring flashlights for the vigil to accommodate fire department regulations.

Ten-foot altars will be created by members of the public, the artists in the village and groups of children. The altars will be lighted at 5:30 p.m.

Invited to instruct the public on the traditional rituals of the holiday is Vavid Vazquez, a Mexican teacher who speaks the Aztec language and will perform the official blessing at the altar. A Catrina Lady, a female figure who symbolizes a debutante of death, will lead the festivities.

As treated in the Mexican holiday, death doesn't seem so fearful, Dutrem said.

"This event is for the people, and we're doing it as traditional as we can," she said.

SHOW TIMES

"Altars and Installations," Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; Thursday, noon-8 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Free. Through Nov. 12. (714) 374-1650.]

"Dia de los Muertos" Celebrations, 207 N. Broadway, Santa Ana Artists Village. Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Free. (714) 542-3081.

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