East Los Angeles resident C.J. Salgado wrote this story after a visit to the Day of Dead art workshops at Self Graphics.
Story and photos by C.J. Salgado
This past Saturday I decided to attend the Day of the Dead community arts workshops put on by Self Help Graphics of East Los Angeles. Undoubtedly, I was nudged along by memories of my grandfather, Jesus, or “Papa Chuche,” as we endearingly referred to him, who passed away about a decade ago. He first came to California from Mexico to work the agricultural fields during the 1940s under the U.S. Government’s Brasero Program. After all, Day of the Dead is all about honoring our departed loved ones.
At these free workshops, held on Saturdays in October of each year, art activities included making “calaca” (skeleton) paper masks, paper mache “calavera” (skull) figures, miniature shoebox altars, and “papel picado.” These workshops were lead by volunteers, many of whom had been doing this for many years. “Alegra,” who’s been doing this for nine years, greeted visitors to her table cheerfully as she passed out the paints for the paper masks. Another volunteer, “Xana” expertly put together her miniature shoebox altar while onlookers oohed and aahed.
Beyond the art workshops that took place in the parking lot, some enjoyed strolling through the upstairs Self Help Graphics gallery space that showcases Latino art. Others hung around the area where “graffiti artists” demonstrated their skills with spray cans. A few stared at the mosaic-covered building housing SHG, which has been a cultural landmark for decades. As for me, I couldn’t stay away from the “tacos de carnitas” and cold “orchata” drink while I took in the sights and thought about my grandfather.
I was pleased to see many kids partaking of this continuation of cultural traditions thorough the artwork celebrating Day of the Dead. In a small but meaningful way they were participating in an Aztec ritual going back thousands of years. Maybe, more importantly, they were learning about honoring those that have come before us. For these kids, they may one day come to realize that we are all knots on a string of life, connected from end to end. You see, I realized, there amidst the paper flowers and calacas, that my grandfather’s legacy of the past lives on in me in the here and now.
These days, when the poor economy and tight government funding is slashing at support of the arts in schools, it is even more reason to participate in free events like these workshops. These activities can truly be opportunities for “action learning” where the nexus between the past and present, as well as art and history, can be experienced by all, kids and adults alike.
Self Help Graphics will hold two more Day of the Dead community art workshops on Oct. 16 and Oct. 23. The workshops are free.