The season to remember the dead

Artwork by David Tafolla at SOMArts

Many Americans give little thought to death, except on Halloween. Even then, most of the day is spent in search of candy or a good time.

But in Mexico, the time around Halloween is spent in a different way. And it calls to mind the spiritual origins of the word Halloween. It’s a contraction of “all hallows even” – literally the evening before All Hallows (in Old English) or All Saints Day – when every known and unknown saint is remembered.

“Mexicans see death differently,” says artist C.J. Grossman. “It’s a passage.” Laughing skeleton models are often seen engaging in earthly activities, such as playing instruments or card games. Grossman says they attempt to laugh at death.

"[Death] doesn’t have to be scary,” she says. “Its just the opposite of life.”

Traditionally, Mexican families visit cemeteries during the Day of the Dead celebration, recognizing All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd). The grave of a loved one is decorated with favorite things from his or her life, often including preferred food and drink. Temporary altars with pictures, flowers and mementos are also made in many homes in honor of the departed.

Grossman has been making Day of the Dead altars for more than 20 years. This year she has chosen to honor the memory of Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, who died in early October of 2009. (See and hear Sosa sing in the attached video.) Her altar is included in this year’s Day of the Dead display at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. Sosa was a singer who fits this year’s theme of “Honoring Revolution with Visions of Healing”, because she was instrumental in establishing La Nueva Canción which takes traditional song styles and adds new lyrics that speak about, and to, oppressed people. Sosa performed for sold-out audiences in New York City, Paris, Rome and throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

The altar Grossman has created features a large wooden heart with Sosa’s lyrics pouring out of it. In the background is a silhouette portrait of the singer, symbolizing that her shadow lingers in the world through her music. It echoes the intent of the Day of the Dead – to remember what's special about all of those who have passed before us.

The SOMArts Cultural Center will showcase altars through Saturday, November 6th, when it will host a closing reception and benefit concert. Click here for more details.