Amid grinning skulls – some containing tequila – the dead “came back to life back to life” on Saturday during Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a joyful celebration of loved ones who have passed way.
The plaza at 20th and J streets in midtown Sacramento was filled with laughter and tears, Mariachi music and whirling Aztec dancers amid 40 lovingly constructed altars honoring departed relatives, friends and comrades – twin baby boys and great-great-great grandparents, musicians and soldiers, revolutionaries and Yaqui Indians, youth leaders and victims of gang violence. The event will continue from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
To entice their souls to join the party, the altars were stocked with precious mementos, from San Francisco 49ers caps to wide-brimmed hats, poems and books, photos and pictures “capturing the life force of los muertos,” said organizer Marie Acosta of La Raza Galeria La Posada.
And what kind of a party would it be without food and drink? The altar for Jose Sosa, a popular Mariachi for 80 years, included his favorite foods – pink pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread), fried chicken with yellow chili peppers, a can of Budweiser and a bottle of Corona. Along with his white lawn chair and a bicycle tire, there was a photo of his hometown on the shores of Lake Chapala, Jalisco.
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“He played his 16 violins outside in his ‘hangout’ chair under a tree in the backyard until the end. It’s only now, a year after his death, that I can listen to a Mariachi song without crying,” Olivia Sosa of Elk Grove, said of her father, 94. She remembered when the other violin player showed up to a Mariachi concert drunk and without his violin. “My father gave him a scolding, then lent him a violin.”
His granddaughter, Andrea Arguelles, brought a picture she’d painted of him playing the violin. “I played the piano when I was younger, and he told me to never stop playing, ‘because music will make everything in life better,’ ” Arguelles recalled.
Mexico’s indigenous people created Dia de los Muertos 3,000 years ago to demystify death by reuniting the dead with their families one joyous day each August, Acosta said. The Conquistadores tried to convert them to Christianity and moved the holiday to All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1.
Though there were plenty of tears shed in the plaza on Saturday, “there’s a sense of humor you can’t find anyplace else,” Acosta said. “We get to experience the whole range of emotions – we’re dancing with them, grieving with them, telling stories about them and partying with them. In Mexico, she said, there’s a song called “Muerto” that says, “I’ll see you next year if you come back – that is if I’m not coming back with you.”
Two young Brown Issues activists, Victor Hugo Perez Zavala and Gerardo Ochoa, shared an altar dedicated to their work with youths. Zavala, a Sacramento City College student, was shot to death, an innocent victim of a gang shootout in 2009, said his friend, Brown Issues founder Carlos Molina. The first in his family to go to college, Zavala, who was not in a gang, held gang-prevention workshops at Burbank High School, McClatchy High School and Sutterville Middle School, Molina said. Ochoa, a poet and youth leader, committed suicide in August right before his 26th birthday, a victim of acute depression.
Burbank graduate Angelica Garci said she’s in college because of him. “I ran away from home at 16 to live with my then-boyfriend,” said Garcia, 21. “I’d never seen myself in college, and he took me to Sac City, helped me with my application and introduced me to the deans,” Garcia said. “He talked to me about teen pregnancy, and without him, I’d be pregnant and dropping out, like so many of my friends.”
Ochoa wasn’t the only soul taken by depression. Sgt. Santiago Guevera, 32, committed suicide in 2011 after serving in the Marines special forces, said his mother, Kimberly Ortega. “He suffered from PTSD. He joined the Marines at 18 and it was all he knew,” she said. “He became very disillusioned with what we were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.” His altar featured the photo of a handsome young man who had once been a boxer, and two black oars his unit donated honoring the comrade they called “Pizza,” “Wizard” and “The Man Who Speaks Without Saying A Word.”
Across the plaza, Anhelica Ramirez, 20, was creating a cross of orange marigolds for her grandfather Esteban Montelongo, 82, who passed away from kidney failure in February. Most altars had marigolds, “because the scent’s supposed to attract those from the other side,” said Montelongo’s son-in-law Victor Ramirez. The altar included two skull-shaped tequila bottles and his favorite cigarettes, Marlboro Red.
The retired railroad man who also worked in the old Campbell’s Soup factory “was very old-school, very quiet and observant,” said his daughter Marcia Ramirez. “He’d always tell us, ‘you have to live to learn,’ and ‘no andes chingando,’ which means ‘don’t screw around.’” But he had a soft heart, Anhelica recalled. “When I was little and my older sister went to school, I was so lonely he bought me some doves to be my friends and called me his dove.”
The altar, like many others, also had photos of other relatives who had passed on. Marge Olmedo Buckner created an altar with more than 50 photos spanning 10 generations of her family. Buckner, 59, wore purple lipstick, magenta eye shadow and white makeup in honor of La Calavera Catrina – the female skeleton in a wide-brim European-style hat who has come to symbolize the holiday. “Death and beauty are one,” Buckner explained. “If where I’m going is to be with them, I don’t mind.”
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