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Day of the Dead Celebration: More than Curiosity

By Jonathan Farrell
Posted Oct 24, 2010 in
Since Halloween will be here next week, I thought I would post an article I wrote some time ago, back in 2008 about the "Day of the Dead" celebrations here in San Francisco. See as follows...
As October ushers in Halloween and harvest festivals to The City, The Day of The Dead or “Día de Los Muertos” as it is celebrated in Mexico gives witness to something much deeper than a haunting curiosity for most Americans.
“I think it's important to keep in mind that Day of the Dead is a celebration,” said Rio Yanez. He and his father Rene Yanez are the curators of the Day of The Dead in The Time of Change exhibit at the SOM Arts Cultural Center.
Día de Los Muertos celebrations have been planned throughout the Mission District and surrounding neighborhoods, Like South of Market, etc.
For Latinos this long-standing and ancient seasonal custom existed way before the European set foot in the Americas. And, it has provided a cohesive link to ancestry.
Since the days of the Aztecs, people throughout Mexico honored the dead during the summer-fall season.
Over the centuries, as Europe dominated Mexican culture, Day of the Dead was assimilated into the Christian-Roman Catholic custom of “All Souls Day.”
Yet much of the spirit and fervor of the ancient rituals/rites remain. “Day of the Dead embraces death as an opportunity for reflection, creativity, and celebration,” said Yanez.
He explained, “the altars in the exhibit at SOM Arts no matter how traditional, contemporary, direct, or abstract are all about celebrating life and celebrating death,” said Yanez.
“Celebrating both life and death in this way, something that is traditionally Mexican and out the United States mainstream, has changed many perspectives in how we think about mortality,” added Yanez.
Yet he points out, ”traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, altars, and processions have become so much more recognized in the mainstream within recent years. This has been a sign of understanding and commercialism,” he said.
As curators, Yanez and his father Rene have opened the exhibit up to an international spectrum of artists to add new perspectives to the tradition.
Local artist Cynthia Tom is one of over 60 artists participating in “The Day of The Dead in a Time of Change exhibit at SOM Arts Cultural Center.” She spoke to the Mission Dispatch about her installation.
“I believe the incredible beauty and vibrancy of the celebration, teaches all of us beyond the Mexican community to celebrate the death of a loved one,” said Tom.
“I am always amazed at the level of thoughtfulness it requires for the creation of the altars and the way it allows others to participate in one another’s grief and honor of loved ones,” she added.
“I grew up near the Mission, said Tom. “So the Day of The Dead was part of my life growing up. Yet, she added, “I did not know until recently, that it was specifically a Mexican celebration."
While Yanez has been working at SOM Arts as a curator for the Day of The Dead exhibit for the past four years, his father Rene has been promoting Day of the Dead celebrations in the Mission and other areas for over 30 years.
This year will be the 11th year Rene Yanez has been directing the Day of The Dead exhibit at SOM Arts Cultural Center.
Rene as a founder has watched the Day of the Dead celebration grows as more and more people take an interest in it each year.
“There are a wide variety of countries, cultures, and religions on display in the exhibit,” said the younger Yanez. “The most exciting element of our exhibit each year is seeing how all of these influences integrate into this traditional Mexican celebration,” he added.
Tom is remembering her aunt in the celebration. She explained. "My aunt passed away this year and I want to honor her."
Tom's art for the SOM Art exhibit is a life-sized altar. It is a replica of an old fashioned general store - A Curiosity Shop of sorts.
Tom explained that the store is a metaphor for what people "buy-into" in life. Tom displays a series of items, which illustrate how many people buy and accept ideas and beliefs automatically.
The general store has finely tailored dresses made of sackcloth much like a medieval hair shirt or penitent garb.
The dresses for sale are meant to be a very tailored. The pattern lines of the design are exquisite, but to wear it next to the skin is completely irritating and painful.
"The perfect little dress for the woman who can't let go of guilt,” notes Tom. She describes the symbolism of her exhibit further. “It will be irritating and cause harm; “Lifetime, money back guarantee,” as Tom illustrates, with a sales-slogan… made by the Carga Culpas Couture Co."
Also, in the shop Tom points to a collection of necklaces and bracelets with small stones and rocks with words engraved upon them, such as "low self-esteem," "self-doubt" and so forth said Tom
Speaking about the life of her aunt. "My aunt always carried a lot of guilt and this altar-exhibit exemplifies some of that. But it also includes wishes for her, prescriptions for a more joyful life, wherever she ends up," said Tom.
"I try always to encourage people to become conscious of the way they are in the world; their feelings, their choices, etc.” “And then be sure these things contribute to your well-being and then your community,” said Tom.
Impressed Yanez said, “Cynthia's work has always been very effective in sharing the personal history of her family and illuminating larger issues that have impacted them.”
Yanez is pleased with all the contributions each artist made for this year. He noted that with Cynthia’s altar-exhibit in particular, “she has addressed issues of immigration, the roles of women in our society.” “And, how both have intersected in the lives of her family,” said Yanez.
Tom recognized the guilt and hurt her aunt carried throughout her life, “much of it self-imposed,” said Tom.
Tom explained that her aunt “like many people in life did not think she had the right to make more choices.”
Tom hopes that people will recognize something in their lives that they accept or buy without thinking; such as social expectations, images to live up to, etc. And, she hopes that they rethink their choices.
"This will be my third time participating as a guest artist, said Tom. She is grateful for the invitation to become part of another culture's celebration.
Tom has lived in other parts of the city such as the Sunset District, Potrero, etc. Yet, to her the Mission District is home.
Tom’s art studio is firmly established in the old Best Foods Mayonnaise building. "The Mission has so much to offer, cultural vibrancy, food and the arts community,” she said.
“The Day of the Dead celebration is a miraculous way for a community of multicultural artists to comprehend grief and loss. There is a social, political and emotional awareness in the air that allows us to comfort each other."
Tom explained, "I was able to help another artist with her altar-exhibit installation." "She was still in mourning and while her art-work was a way to express the grief, there were moments when she was overwhelmed by it." "So, I was there to help," said Tom.
"The art-installations are different from one another, but our thought and creative process are similar," said Tom
Tom is very thankful to Rene and Rio Yanez, the curators at SomArts Cultural Center. She invites all to join in the celebration of the Day of the Dead.
“Dia de Los Muertos creates a consciousness of our place in the world, hopefully instilling gratitude, Tom said.
For more information about the Day of the Dead in The Time of Change exhibition at SOM Arts Cultural Center at 934 Brannan Street, visit: Or call: 415-863-1414. -#-
To read this article as it originally appeared, visit
And to read more about previous articles published about the "Day of the Dead" celebration in San Francisco and its history check out web link:

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