Keeping the tradition alive

When Danny Corea lost his great grandparents Petra and Ramón Magdaleno last year, it left an emptiness in his heart.

In mourning and unable to cope with their loss, he sought a way to best remember them and their strong influences on his childhood upbringing. The most important knowledge they shared was personal stories of being born and raised in México. Many of their conversations took place around the kitchen table that was regularly crowded with authentic platillos mexicanos. They celebrated many rich cultural traditions, including El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Corea, a third-generation Mexican-American, understood little about the tradition, but when his grandparents died, he knew exactly how to best commemorate them.

He created an altar.

"I never had a reason to participate in this celebration nor have I ever built an altar in my life. To be honest with you, I have never paid any attention to the Day of the Dead celebrations and never had a reason to participate, that is, until my great grandmother died," said Corea.

His great grandparents, who hail from Zacatecas and Chihuahua, México, escaped during the Mexican Revolution and settled in Sacramento. It was there they shared stories with their children and great grandchildren about their life, struggles and triumphs. The couple nourished their Mexican heritage and roots daily.

"My grandma was the queen of my whole life, my whole heart," said Corea through long and deep breaths, just over a whisper.

Corea, 35, owns a catering business in Sacramento and dedicates his spare time to artistic projects at La Raza Galería Posada in mid-town Sacramento. Impressed by his work, the Galería invited him to build an altar in one of the largest exhibit rooms for their annual Day of the Dead celebration, a tradition the gallery began in the 1970s.

Corea accepted the offer.

"To me, building an altar is therapy. I see it as a way to honor the special people in my life that showed me love and respect and who also worked really hard in every aspect of their lives. This celebration is not a sad thing. It's a joyful celebration and an opportunity to artistically show the community how these people made me who I am and made my family who they are today. It's also important that the younger generations, like the kids, know who they are and where they come from," said Corea.

This year La Raza Galería Posada will feature Corea's work as part of a six-week celebration. The exhibit will include Southern California artist Martha Rameriz-Oropez, who will exhibit original illustrations from the book 'The Toltec I-Ching.' The exhibit will be open to the public on Oct. 7 and run through Nov. 12.

The Galería will also hold a workshop on how to make sugar skulls and paper marigold/cempazuchitl flowers.

"All we ask is that people don't divert from the theme of the Day of the Dead. People can express themselves in any artistic way they choose. In the past, participants have made altars honoring their pets, a family member, political issues such as education, the economy or have highlighted other national themes," said Roberto López, program coordinator at La Raza Galería Posada.

Last year, more than 30 altars were created by community members, non-profit organizations and other civic groups. This year, he expects almost double the amount of altars with well over 5,000 visitors from all around the county.

"This is the closest way we can recreate a tradition in the way its celebrated in Oaxaca and Michoacan, México. On the eve of El Día de los Muertos, families gather food like pan dulce and warm hot chocolate and set it next to the altar of their loved ones while they eat and pray and speak to them. What many don't understand is that its a highly spiritual day where one often meditates. It is one of the rare opportunities we have to connect with our loved one that has passed and all those from our ancestral past," said López.

In Fresno, Arte América's executive director Elva Rodríguez strives to bring the same message to community members about the annual tradition.

"We really don't want people to think this celebration has anything to do with Halloween," she said.

Each year, the gallery holds a processional march beginning at St. John's Cathedral Church and ending at Arte Americas followed by a number of festivities including entertainment, food like pan dulce and hot chocolate. Because the procession would fall on Oct. 31 when Halloween is celebrated, organizers changed the date, route and time of the procession.

This year, it will begin at 6 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. in an effort to get more participants.

"Last year we had about 200 people participate and we expect more people this year," said Rodríguez.

This year, the procession will begin at the entrance of the Fulton Mall, through the plaza, and down Calaveras Street to Arte Américas.

"It will be one of the first times we do this procession on El Día de los Muertos and the first time our procession through Calaveras street coincidentally fits our theme of calaveras perfectly," said Rodríguez, referring to the street named for skulls.

Arte América's Day of the Dead exhibit opened earlier this month. The board decided to steer away from the traditional altars this year in order to showcase the unconventional altar and the concept of the "calavera" (skeleton/skull). The 'Cala Gala' exhibit is intended to feature the different artistic ways a calavera can be made.

Arte América will also host an exhibit of photos from the annual Day of the Dead celebration in the Merced County foothill community of Hornitos. There will also be workshops in miniature altars and paper crafts like flowers and papel picado.

Admission to both galleries is free and donations are welcomed. However, many of the workshops will require a small fee to cover basic costs for supplies. Rodríguez says she will conduct private tours for those interested upon request, charging $1 per person.

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