The Day of the Dead is a major Mexican holiday in Oakland’s Fruitvale District; last year, the signature event organized by the Spanish Speaking Unity Council drew close to ninety thousand attendees. Traditionally, it is believed that the dead return in spirit form in the early hours of November 2 to be among the living. Altars are prepared with offerings to welcome them. “The first event was born out of our Main Street Program,” recalls Gilda Gonzalez, CEO of the council, “which looked at how we could support the merchants along International Boulevard and help the Fruitvale move forward as a vibrant and lively community for the families that live here.”
This year’s Dia de los Muertos festivities take place Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., along International Boulevard between Fruitvale and 41st avenues. For Gonzalez it will also be a first, heading a community services organization that was born out of the Chicano Movement struggle 41 years ago. “We realize we have evolved and now do programs in eight different languages, but we want people to recognize our Latino roots because our numbers as a population in Oakland continue to increase,” she says.
All you have to do is visit the Fruitvale Village at the BART station to see how the Unity Council is physically changing the appearance of its community. Union Point Park along the Oakland waterfront is another recent development. Add to that first-time homeowners’ seminars and Head Start programs, and you can see it’s an organization on the move.
This push for community empowerment resides in the legacy of Arabella Martinez, now retired, whom Gonzalez replaced and whom she acknowledges as a major visionary for this growth. “She was a trailblazer, and you will observe that we are now a more female-dominant organization,” she explains. “My secondary calling at this job is to inspire these young Latinas around me to open their eyes to the possibilities of the world.”
For Gonzalez, who grew up as a farmworker in the Central Valley, it was the late Carmen Flores, a legendary community activist who worked for Congressman Ron Dellums, who brought her into the political arena. A graduate of St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Gonzalez was an intern at Clinica de la Raza when she met Flores. “Carmen is who pulled me into politics,” she says. “We met and she asked me over to then-Congressman Dellums’ office. She got to know me and before I knew it I was interning there with her and Ron.”
The 2005 Fruitvale Day of the Dead Festival features five entertainment stages with merchants and altars galore. Gonzalez, who has been CEO for just a few months, has set only one mandate: “This year, what you’ll see is many more altars done by individuals and families throughout our community. We want to emphasize what Day of the Dead is all about, and that is the remembrance and celebration of those that have passed.” For more information, call 510-535-7176.