Altared States

Students and artists honor Day of the Dead

Two months ago, Robin Lovell’s third- and fourth-grade students said that “Day of the Dead” sounded like the devil’s birthday, or zombies rising from the grave. Now, any one of them can give you the real story: that the Day of the Dead is an occasion to honor and remember their deceased friends and relatives, and that there’s nothing creepy or scary about it after all.

Lovell teaches a Spanish-bilingual class at East Oakland’s Woodland Elementary. Her students collaborated with Margaret Chavigny’s class at St. Paul’s Episcopal School (also in Oakland) on two huge altar-installations for the Oakland Museum’s annual Day of the Dead exhibition. Under the guidance of professional artists Daniel Camacho and Salud Hernandez, the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students spent their first two weeks of school painting, making skeletons and “papel picado,” and sharing memories of family and friends who are now gone.

As third-grader Marycruz astutely observes, the finished project is “really cool.”

“Violence and death are definitely very prevalent around Woodland’s community,” observes Lovell. “The boy who drowned at Castlemont was the brother of one of our students. We had a couple of uncles who were both shot at the beginning of the school year. Just a couple of days ago another relative was shot.

“With all the tragedy that’s going on here and around the world, I think it’s really healing and empowering for the kids to think of individuals who have died and what they gave to us, and what we gave to them. This holiday is an occasion for them — and all Latino people — to feel proud of who they are.”

The students’ traditional altars are only one part of the museum’s Day of the Dead exhibit, which also includes altars by local artists Yolanda Garfias Woo and Josefina Lopez. An adjoining gallery features the fabulous papier-màché skeletons of Raul Aguilar, Ruben Guzman, and Gerardo Perez. The last gallery houses three contemporary installations by Wura Ogunji, Tessie Barrera Scharaga, and Jaime Cortez.

Jaime Cortez’s project might be the standout work of the entire show. He dedicates it to his grandmother, a “furious, funny, flawed, wonderful” person who always tried to smooth over and tidy up the injustices of her life. The installation incorporates some elements of a traditional altar, but its contemporary aesthetic is much more spare, using just a few symbolic objects to convey the multiplicity of her personality.

The setting is a dimly lit room strewn with paper marigolds. A vacuum cleaner mowing a clean path through the carpet of flowers has stopped mid-sweep, its unplugged cord trailing lifelessly behind. “I wanted to express how it feels when someone is exhaled from life,” explains Cortez. “And I wanted to give a sense of how contradictory and complicated my grandmother was. How she was funny, very possessive and jealous, fiercely loyal, and extremely hardworking, but also kind of crazy, as most of us are.”

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