Celebrating Day of the Dead in a Year of Grief

This Día de Los Muertos exhibit is dedicated to the ‘lives that should not have been lost.’

These are the darkest times Jos Sances has ever lived through.

“And I’m a fairly old guy,” says Sances, who has been painting in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 40 years. Still, he says 2020 has “nightmarish” for him. His contribution to the SOMArts Cultural Center’s annual Día de los Muertos exhibit is kind of like a history book of the year, etched out on glowing, panoramic scratchboards: a homeless encampment under a highway overpass next to sign that says “Can’t blame Wuhan for this”; an excavator truck pummeling through a rainforest; a Black Lives Matter protest; a funeral.

It’s in line with the theme of the exhibit — “Living Legacies” — which is dedicated to the “lives that we should not have lost.” Over one million people in the world have died of the novel coronavirus, and 200,000 of those deaths were in the United States. In San Francisco, Latinx and Hispanic residents make up 49.6 percent of COVID-19 cases and 25 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the city. Meanwhile, police killings of Black people have ignited Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

“We recognize there have been so many lives lost that could’ve been avoided — that should not have been lost,” co-curator Rio Yañez says. “And that goes with structural and institutional racism and violence, and COVID.”

Yañez and his co-curator Carolina Quintanilla had to face a difficult question: Close down the exhibit in a year when people need to mourn, or try to chart a path forward? The Día de los Muertos exhibit has had a long history in San Francisco, stretching back to when Yañez’s father, René Yañez, first started the revolutionary exhibit, blurring the lines between traditional altars and modern art. The exhibit has always gone on in one form or another. After René Yañez’s death in 2018, Rio Yañez took up the mantle. In 2020, Yañez and Quintanilla played with the idea of a virtual tour and a drive-in gallery, but everything seemed to fall short of what the altars represented, and what they could provide for people in mourning.

“It’s an altar. It’s a very difficult thing to make accessible in an authentic way and in an intimate way — because altars are really intimate — in any way other than in person,” Quintanilla says. Luckily, the two feel like they’ve “cracked the code” with a ticketed entry, timed carefully to allow for social distancing within the SOMArts Cultural Center’s walls. They’ve also created a 360 degree virtual tour that allows viewers to enter the exhibit from the safety of their own computers, and view 16 artists’ works in stunning, high-quality resolution.

The Día de los Muertos exhibit is even continuing with its annual drag show over Twitch on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. Per Sia, the curator and DJ for “Amor Eterno,” is excited to play “cheesy” love songs and Spanish-language music, all with an emotional rawness to complement the drag performances.  “René is looking over me and saying, ‘Okay girl, don’t mess it up,’” she says.

Art: “The Legacy” by Victor Mario Zaballa Tlatquilt. Photo: Rich Lomibao

Per Sia notes that part of the drag show is celebratory — Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that focuses on commemorating loved ones who have passed away. In this year’s context, that may be difficult, not just because of the pandemic-induced gathering restrictions, but because of the somber, grief-filled nature of the current era. 

Rio Yañez and Quintanilla didn’t give the artists detailed rules for this year’s iteration, but the show came together cohesively to show different dimensions of mourning and healing. While Sances preferred to process this year’s events by rendering them in detail, Aambr Newsome, also known by their artist name, 2AM, created an altar for their ancestors that depicted various figures as saints and angels among the clouds.

“A lot of the Black enslaved ancestors — they used to dream that they would have peace in the afterlife,” Newsome says. “They believed that their afterlife would take them back to Africa where they would be with their family and their friends.”

The mural in Newsome’s altar reads: “We shouldn’t have to die in order to gain freedom.” On the table in front of them are candles, flower petals, and gold-rimmed plates filled with black beans to represent black-eyed peas (it was difficult to find some during COVID, according to Newsome) as well as coffee beans. “Coffee beans give a lot of energy. They’re an awakening aroma. So I put that there as a signifier— to wake up from the darkness,” Newsome says. “A lot of these people may have lived in dark spaces as spirits because they died violently.”

Art: “No puedo respirar, no puedo respirar” by Adrián Arias. Photo: Rich Lomibao

It’s Newsome’s hope that visitors will take the time to think about life, its importance, and the value of leaving offerings for the dead. “Not just for the dead that you know, but the dead that you see on your Instagram feed every day, the dead that you see in the news every day, the people around you who are not walking in the same spaces as you.”

“It’s Sandra Bland, it’s Martin Luther King Jr., it’s Huey Newton, it’s Oscar Grant, it’s Breonna Taylor,” Newsome says. “If you find yourself in any sort of reflection with their life, or you see any type of wrongdoing in their life, and how it ended, then you should pay your respects. You should give them your energy.”

In this sense, Living Legacies is also meant to be a “call to action.” “We’re all going through it,” Quintanilla says, in reference to collective global trauma. Living Legacies is meant to carve out spaces for healing and mourning, and eventually map a path forward so future generations won’t have to endure the same. 

Living Legacies: Día de Los Muertos 2020
934 Brannan St. or online
Through Nov. 6. Free, suggested $10 donation.

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