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Dia De Los Muertos Lives On Through Artists In Los Angeles

Atiyyah Khan |
October 29, 2010 | 12:07 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Dia de los Muertos (Creative Commons)
Dia de los Muertos (Creative Commons)
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration on the annual Mexican calendar that stretches as far back as 3000 years ago to the time of the Aztecs.

Celebrations for the day are in preparation throughout the year and culminate with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.

But how have the youth of Los Angeles reinterpreted this festival for themselves?

Dia de los Muertos is a way to remember the dead from one's family who have passed on. It is celebrated in Mexico and in the United States by those of Mexican heritage.

In LA, typically traditional ceremonies will unfold throughout the week until Nov. 2 at Olvera Street.

Arts organization Self Help Graphics & Art, well known for their involvement in the festivity, also hold similarly more traditional community family processions.

The day usually involves ‘ofrendas’ (offerings) for the dead which can be in the form of food, toys, or alcohol. It is not unusual to see bottles of mescal or tequila placed at altars.

These altars are often decorated with Flor de Muerto (“Flower of the Dead”) which are said to be attractive to the souls of the dead. Families celebrate by making sugar-skulls and drawing on folklore imagery for costumes and artwork.

But artists Antonio Pelayo and Pablo Damas offered an alternative take on the festival.

Pelayo is the curator of an exhibition themed on Dia de los Muertos that focuses more on how the youth have interpreted this festival.

The two artists are in their early 30s sitting at a coffee shop. They are the oldest in the exhibition that will take place.

“I think as far as tradition goes, usually there is some kind of mass involved; it is still a very religious ceremony of remembrance dating back to our ancestors. It is remembering those who have left, but in a positive way- not so much dwelling on the fact that they are gone," said Damas. "I think now there has been resurgence among our generation to where we are looking back to our ancestry to bring it back. For a while, it kind of got lost. Not just Dia de los Muertos, but a lot of our culture. But now, the youth are getting interested again.”

For his own artwork, Pelayo works predominantly in pencil. After participating in several years of art shows themed on Day of the Dead, he decided to finally create and curate his own event, which has been in the planning for over six months.

Through a close network of Mexican artists, he has organized an exhibition that showcased over 20 artists asking them to create work themed purely on Dia de los Muertos. These include graffiti artists with the youngest from ages 25.

An important element of Pelayo's exhibition is that he is using it as a platform to expose emerging young artists and talent, some of whom have never exhibited before.

“The artwork we’re going to be showing is more on the contemporary side. Not taking anything away from the traditional, but with our own interpretations,” said Pelayo. “It’s diverse too, in that it’s not only people of Mexican-background contributing. I have a Korean guy and a Filipino girl also in the show. The rest of us are all Latino. So everyone is going to bring their own flavor."

Both artists emphasize the importance of the positivity of the festival.

Pelayo continued: ” I lived in Mexico for a while. Typical Day of the Dead celebration means there is just a lot of food. My mom would bring more food to the dead than the alive. Typically, we eat tamales. Obviously we drink a lot of tequila and mescal. And there are loads of flowers. It is a celebration to honor and remember our past relatives and you will never see anyone crying or any tears.”

The exhibition takes place on Oct. 30 at the Sabor Lounge on Union Street. There will also be a spoken word poet who will perform a piece on the Day of the Dead in Spanish.

The event also includes face-painting and a taquero, making fresh tacos outside. The after-party continues the celebration with music on rotation including bolero, trio, hip-hop, Latin electronica, '80s and Spanish rock.

It is these very elements that separate an event like this from the more traditional elements of Dia de los Muertos festivities.

Damas, whose preferred medium is painting, said that this show will make an impact on him. “I lost my mom in March this year, so this show will be more personal for me as far as the piece I create and the celebration too.”

The project has been a labor of love for Pelayo, drawing on help from friends to organize the event.

He points out the role that young people have come to play in this ancestral tradition, ”We are simply using 20th century tools to interpret something that is 3,000 years old, and we’re in the middle of that evolution.”

Though this entire week will be filled with celebrations all over LA, another celebration that younger audiences can look forward to is a Dia de los Muertos celebration held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Oct. 30.

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