Hollow eyes of painted papier-mâché skulls grin in forever stares. Multicolored creatures of the macabre menace from pedestals. Multi-cultured paintings of death hang from gallery walls. But it's not foreboding, not a house of horrors. It's all about tradition, about remembering the dead, about Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles.
Consuelo Flores, 51, or as she says, fifty-wonderful, is here to build a Day of the Dead altar, as she has done every year since 1981. She builds the altar to honor her father Jose Flores who died at 87, April 29, 2004; her mother Guadalupe Flores, who died in 2009, at age 94; and her brother Ben, who was 49 when he died in 2000.
In the beginning, she didn't know a thing about Dia de los Muertos, or the practice of altar building, but her inclination toward art drew her into Self Help Graphics and when the Day of the Dead celebration neared, and people started building altars, curiosity got the better of her. She started building altars too.
Back in 1981, there wasn't much written in English about the Day of Dead. She searched out books from Mexico in Spanish and read them cover to cover to learn more. Her mother, a devout Catholic, dismissed the Day of the Dead as a pagan thing. Consuelo's family initially resisted her efforts, but she persisted, because she found the day held meaning for her.
Consuelo, who holds a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Antioch University, has written and lectured on the Day of the Dead. She has presented her literary work at various universities including La Universidad Autonima de Mexico, Cornell University, the University of Southern California, Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Otis Art Institute. She has also presented her work at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, and many other prestigious venues.
In her study of the observance, she found that pre-Columbian indigenous people in Mexico would celebrate harvest with offerings to the gods. They would also provide offerings of food and drink to the dead for it was believed the dead needed nourishment to continue on to the nine worlds. Consuelo explained that if you died in war or in childbirth and it was an honorable death you got a free pass to paradise. But other deaths required a longer journey and the travelers needed food to reach their ultimate destination. In the 16th century, when Spaniards brought Catholicism, and people were baptized by the sword, the old pre-Columbian practices merged with the Catholic All Saints (Nov. 1) and All Souls (Nov. 2) days, and the celebration became a hybrid, the offering, became an altar, and Catholic icons came into play.
Around the turn of the century, a printer and illustrator named Jose Guadalupe Posado introduced political sonnets inscribed on skulls that poked fun at the powerful and politics entered the scene. Today, the celebration continues to evolve, reflecting the environment, world hunger, social justice, and whatever else is important to the people. The meaning, however, the heart of the celebration remains constant.
"It's a day to remember the dead, to honor and pay homage to those people who have died who were and still are important in your life; it's a day to come to terms with your own mortality; a day to celebrate your life and the lives of those who have gone before," she says. "People die three deaths. First, when life leaves the body, second when the body itself is no longer visible, and is buried or cremated, and the third death occurs the day when the dead are forgotten. We don't want our dead to be forgotten."
But it was tricky at first. Part of the tradition is dressing the part, of embracing the fashion of Day of the Dead. Back in the early 1980s, back when the celebration was new to this country and without much acceptance: "People thought I was a devil worshipper. I wore a Day of the Dead T-shirt to the bank and the teller asked me if I worshipped the devil." Consuelo says. "Now the celebration has gotten much bigger, more widespread. You even have Day of the Dead skulls and other artifacts made in China. I was gonna buy a skull the other day and I looked beneath it and found a made-in-China sticker. They are appropriating our culture in China. I was kinda shocked at that one," she says, shaking her head.
Consuelo's car was packed to the roof with altar items from home. Her husband, Stephen Blackburn unloaded much of it. She brought a replica of her mother's sewing machine. In Mexico, her mother sewed clothes for others to help feed her family. In America, her mother sewed clothes for the family; there were 10 children. Consuelo brought chairs from home, the empty chairs representing the vacancy the dead have left in the family. She brought coffee cups and glasses and photographs and music and bus passes and sugar skulls and more, all items that connected her to her loved ones.
For Consuelo, the altar is a family affair. Her sons, Alain, 27, and Gian Flores Norte, 25, often help with the assembly. Alain and Gian are also artists. Alain is a freelance illustrator currently working on a comic strip. Gian is an artist influenced by street murals and tattoo art. Both of them grew up in the Day of the Dead culture.
At home, Consuelo has a perpetual altar so she can commune with her departed on a daily basis. The deaths of her parents and her brother hit her hard. The grief was palpable, powerful enough to cause depression. She finds building the altars a way to cope with the grief, and thousands from the community come out for Dia de los Muertos, the grief becomes shared. "You remain connected, it puts your own death into perspective, and the whole community supports you, and it's a way to hold onto your past, while forging meaningful relations in our present. And this is really important," she says.
Consuelo has the vision for how the altar will come together and she directs its creation, telling stories of each object to her sons, so the lives of their loved ones are relived—how much cream and sugar her father liked in his coffee, how her mother used that pot to cook her best dishes.
Her mother wasn't a believer in the altars, until Consuelo built one at the Self Help Graphics for her brother. There hadn't been an official end of life service for her brother, so the altar stood in for one. "About 300 or 400 people passed by in line, and we heard people talking: 'Oh my God, it's Ben. He died? He was so young. Such a great guy.' We came to understand the significance of who he was in the community. It was a way for my family to recognize him through others eyes. Finally, my family began to appreciate my reintroducing the altar tradition," she says.
Consuelo's older sister, Rachel, when she heard about Ben's altar, rummaged through her closet and brought out a Tootsie Pop. Ben used to shine shoes to earn pocket money and knowing Tootsie Pops were Rachel's favorite candy, he'd buy one, take a couple of licks and give it to her. "It is what we shared,' Rachel told Consuelo. Memories like that make the altar come alive, Consuelo says.
The Day of the Dead is about life, contends Consuelo. The skeletons which have become part of the iconography are used to show that beneath our flesh we are all equal. "The face is but a mask. Beneath the mask is the skull. The skull is the great equalizer. Beneath the flesh, we are all the same. In the grave no one can tell what you were. Can't tell politics, can't tell gender, can't tell race, gay or straight, rich or poor, can't tell anything. Death is the great equalizer," she says.
The 39th annual Dia de los Muertos celebration runs 5 to 11 p.m., Friday Nov. 2. As Self Help Graphics puts it: "It's the yearly day of remembering that life is a dream from which, one day we will awaken, celebrates our beloved who are no longer with us. Every year we paint our faces in duality; half calaca and half ourselves, revealing the ancient comedy of life as our ancestors have taught us."