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In Pandemic, Self Help Graphics’ Día de los Muertos Celebration Builds New Relationships

Día de los Muertos banderitas| Pablo Aguilar
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For more than 40 years, the community arts center Self Help Graphics & Art in Boyle Heights has hosted a large-scale Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead celebration on the first weekend of November. That won’t change this year but what will change will be how the celebration will be experienced and celebrated due to COVID-19.

Learn more about Día de Los Muertos / Day of the Dead on "Artbound." Watch now.
Día de Los Muertos / Day of the Dead - Media Manager

This year’s 47th Annual Día de los Muertos celebration will move the altar exhibit, titled “Ofrendas 2020,” which you can view on the SHG website; workshops and final day celebration to a mostly virtual space. The many altars standing inside the community space will still be on display but only online. The workshops hosted throughout October were available via video streaming as opposed to on-site at the center. The final day celebration on November 1st, which previously has included an on-foot procession that begins at Mariachi Plaza and ends at the Self Help Graphics building, will still occur but will be replaced with a car caravan that will start at the East L.A. Civic Center, 1 p.m.

“We're actually installing a couple of altars outside in the parking lot,” explains Betty Avila, the center’s Executive Director. “So even though people can’t come into the building, they can see the exhibition online, but if you're walking by, you'll still get to see an installation, or our fence will actually have an installation as well.”

Avila and the center’s board of directors began preparing early this summer to convert the center’s annual Día de los Muertos festivities from a live, interactive space to a virtual, but still somewhat interactive, space, which came with a new set of challenges.

“I think we knew in June, we understood that if things didn't change for the Department of Public Health that we'd have just move forward with that assumption,” explains Avila. “I assumed that we would be able to save some money because our season does not include closing the street and having the whole festival. It turns out production and editing is really expensive, so that's also new terrain for us.”

Click left and right to see some images of the celebration last year:

Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019. Two players in calaveras bowing.  | Pablo Aguilar
1/7 Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019. Two players in calaveras bowing. | Pablo Aguilar
Aztec dancer during Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019  | Pablo Aguilar
2/7 Aztec dancer during Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019 | Pablo Aguilar
Aztec dancers during Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019  | Pablo Aguilar
3/7 Aztec dancers during Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019 | Pablo Aguilar
A young woman in calaveras paint smiles during the Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019  | Pablo Aguilar
4/7 A young woman in calaveras paint smiles during the Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019 | Pablo Aguilar
A band plays on stage during the Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019  | Pablo Aguilar
5/7 A band plays on stage during the Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019 | Pablo Aguilar
A young girl gets her face painted Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019  | Pablo Aguilar
6/7 A young girl gets her face painted Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019 | Pablo Aguilar
A workshop during Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019  | Pablo Aguilar
7/7 A workshop during Día de los Muertos celebration in 2019 | Pablo Aguilar

The largest obstacle they faced, however, was maintaining the sense and spirit of community that the event is known for and that the celebration itself requires of its participants. Community participation in the weeks of preparation and during the Día de los Muertos celebration has always been central to SHG’s annual festivities.

“I think that, for us, is the biggest challenge, like, how do you convey what can be a really powerful and beautiful experience for people through these virtual channels?” explains Avila. “What does that look like for folks that…don't have a ton of devices. We're competing for time on one device or two so that's been a question mark. I think that we've done the best that we can given the situation.”

“There’s some of our peers [who] are opening by appointment only, even though they shouldn't” continues Avila. “I think given where we are, the fact that our community has been hit so hard, that's not a risk that we're willing to take. But I do keep holding out hope that the County Department of Public Health will let us open before this Day of the Dead exhibition closes. It's one thing to see the altars in photo or video form and it's another to see them in person.”

For this year’s festivities, the center hired artist Sandra Rodriguez to guest curate the exhibition of altars. Rodriguez includes her own print, titled “Guadalupe Rodriguez, Autorretrato en el Panteón, 2003,” a recreation of a self-portrait painted by her mother, Guadalupe Rodriguez. Other artist in the exhibit include Nao Bustamante, Barbara Carrasco, Carolyn Castaño, Enrique Castrejon, Yreina Cervantez, Audrey Chan, Christina Fernandez, Consuelo Flores, Isabelle Lutterodt, Rigo Maldonado, Guadalupe Rodriguez, Shizu Saldamando, Gabriella Sanchez, Devon Tsuno, Sandra de la Loza and Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

"Guadalupe Rodriguez, Autorretrato en el Panteón, 2003" by Sandy Rodriguez is the commemorative print for Self Help Graphics' Dia de los Muertos in 2020 | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art
"Guadalupe Rodriguez, Autorretrato en el Panteón, 2003" by Sandy Rodriguez is the commemorative print for Self Help Graphics' Dia de los Muertos in 2020 | Courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art

The shift to a virtual space provided SHG with a bit of added creative freedom. For example, SHG partnered with VR tech company TecnoLatinx to transform an altar by Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza of Tonalli Studio into an AR experience, which includes different Instagram filters inspired by their altar.

“It's cool too, like, this notion of this 90-year-old woman who has a very traditional practice, artistic practice working with TecnoLatinx,” says Avila. “It's awesome, she was all about it. They were the ones that have been really interested in it from even before all of this happened so this just gave us that opportunity to make it a reality.”

Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza of Tonalli Studio standing in front of their ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza of Tonalli Studio standing in front of their ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos 2020 | Rafael Cardenas

SHG is also continuing its partnership with Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles to work on a large, digital altar for their “Noche de Ofrenda.” The altar will include photos submitted by residents of SHG’s community that will be featured in a large, digital installation at the Music Center Plaza across the street from Grand Park.

Click left and right to see some of the ofrendas at Grand Park:

An ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
1/6 An ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
An ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
2/6 An ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
An ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
3/6 An ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
An ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
4/6 An ofrenda at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
People working on paper flowers for ofrendas at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
5/6 People working on paper flowers for ofrendas at Grand Park for Día de los Muertos in 2020 | Rafael Cardenas
People working on putting up decorations on an ofrenda for Día de los Muertos 2020 | Rafael Cardenas at Grand Park
6/6 People working on putting up decorations on an ofrenda for Día de los Muertos 2020 | Rafael Cardenas at Grand Park

Another deviation from the annual norm was the shift from in-person workshops to virtual ones. The workshops were made available free of charge and are still available online on the center’s YouTube page, making them available to everyone. SHG created over 2,000 artistic supply kits for residents in their local community to pick up and use for the workshops as well as for the students at Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School across the street from their building.

Día de los Muertos: Paper Marigold Flower Workshop

“A cool element of that is we still need to make a lot of paper flowers for the installations and workshops usually give us that opportunity for people to just bust out a ton of flowers as they’re coming through and they take some and leave some,” explains Avila. “We’re engaging the senior residents who live in a home up the street. They love making paper flowers so they’re helping us out and that’s a new engagement that we’re building so now we have a new relationship with them as a result of this forced closure.”

The final celebration will happen on November 1st at 1 p.m. when the annual procession will make its way from East L.A. Civic Center to SHG. There will also be Aztec dancers at SHG for folks in the caravan to see as they pass by.

“We’re asking folks to deck out their cars, deck out themselves, we’ve got some lowriders that are joining us that day,” says Avila. “I think it gives us an opportunity to create a communal space while still keeping people safe.”

The livestream will begin at 4 p.m. and feature live music, courtesy of The Paramount, and will include co-host Martha Gonzalez of Quetzal, co-host Annie Gonzalez of “Gentefied” and “Vida,” Ceci Bastida, Tropa Magica, Katzu Oso, and Danza Divina de Los Angeles.

The importance of the event as an avenue of emotional and artistic expression and catharsis is one reason why Avila and SHG felt it important to continue with Día de los Muertos this year, especially in light of the many injustices, challenges, difficulties, and loss that have occurred in a long and difficult year.

“I think, for me, that that's been a challenge…since June [when] we started seeing the protests and this really incredible call for racial justice,” explains Avila. “A place like Self Help, that's where we step up and shine. That's where we open up our doors and say, ‘Come on over, let's have a poster making party for the marches.’ Let's do whatever we need to do to support these actions that are happening throughout the city and then The Day of the Dead then becomes that other platform for artists and community members.”

Top Image: Día de los Muertos banderitas| Pablo Aguilar

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