Painter Carmen Leon with her work "La Cultura Cura" at Pajaro Valley Arts.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wallace Baine

Watsonville’s Día de los Muertos observance a poignant response to 2020’s trauma and turmoil

“It’s not just an art show. It’s not just a Mexican practice. There are real sadnesses out there, real in our community,” says the curator of Pajaro Valley Arts’ “Mi Casa es Tu Casa exhibit, a community-wide effort to bring the spirit of honoring the dead to bear in the face of COVID, wildfire and more events of the past year.

For years, the artists at Pajaro Valley Arts have been honoring the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos with a tradition of their own called “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa,” during which the beautiful old Victorian house that serves as PVA’s gallery in downtown Watsonville is transformed into a showcase for the variety and the emotional/spiritual power of the season.

But in 2021, the “Mi Casa” exhibit has spilled out into the greater community of Watsonville like never before.

The reason is not difficult to guess. This year’s “Mi Casa” curator, Shirley Flores-Muñoz, said that a year of trauma and turmoil like 2020 simply called for a larger response.

“It’s not just a ritual,” she said, sitting outside the PVA gallery the day before it opened to the public. “It’s not just an art show. It’s not just a Mexican practice. There are real sadnesses out there, real in our community. Countywide, there are 220 people who passed (from COVID-19). But the first person who died, I went to elementary school with him. I talked to his wife yesterday and she still cries. So, these are sad moments for all of us.”

Mi Casa Es Tu Casa: History, Loss, and Healing” is a community-wide effort to bring the spirit of Día de los Muertos, of honoring the dead, to bear in the face of not just the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the aftermath of the CZU fires, the Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes that has surfaced in the past year. The art exhibit is as big and powerful as ever, but this year, it is accompanied by an ambitious schedule of events that spill outside the gallery, beginning this weekend with a family event Friday evening at the Watsonville Plaza, and a candlelight vigil Saturday evening to remember those who have died.

Pajaro Valley Arts 2021 Dia de los Muertos exhibit
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The events will also carry over deep into November with a writing workshop, a poetry event, a book discussion, a hands-on art workshop and an online film, all to support the art show, which runs through Dec. 12.

But, said Flores-Munoz, this year’s observance has an even broader narrative, as it marks the 500th anniversary of a turning-point event in the history of the Americas, the 1521 epidemic of smallpox and other diseases brought about by the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire that devastated the Indigenous population.

The exhibit’s signature work, by painter and UC Santa Cruz grad Carmen Leon, links the 1521 epidemic to the current day, pairing images from 500 years ago with contemporary images that reflect the ravages of COVID-19, which has to date killed nearly five million people worldwide. Between those depictions in the painting is a large image of a woman, her arms outstretched, embracing a collection of herbs and plants used by the indigenous population for healing.

Pajaro Valley Arts 2021 Dia de los Muertos exhibit
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“She is representative,” said Leon, standing before her painting, “of the title, ‘La Cultura Cura,’ ‘Culture Heals,’ that Shirley was speaking to.” Below the painting, at the entrance to the gallery, is a large Día de los Muertos altar, honoring the many in the community who have died. In the center of the altar is a photo of Leon’s own daughter, who died two years ago.

The Día de los Muertos altar, or ofrenda, is the dominant theme of the “Mi Casa” show, which features close to 50 artists and contributors, chief among them Leon; muralist Ralph D’Oliveira who has a deep history of art and activism in Watsonville; well-known artist and curator Amalia Mesa-Bains; and muralist (and newly named Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year) Guillermo Aranda.

The ofrendas displayed encompass a variety of themes and approaches. Santa Cruz artist Lucien Kubo created an altar marking the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans in the past year, with specific memorials to those who died in the spa shootings in Atlanta last March. There is an ofrenda dedicated to local Filipino communities, to women, and to artists and to literary figures, among others.

Some are specific — a moving memorial to teen Tyler Cruz, who passed away in May — while others are general, including an altar devoted to deceased children from all over the world. PVA executive director Valeria Miranda and Watsonville Film Festival executive director Consuelo Alba both had mothers who died in recent months, and both mothers were seamstresses, so Miranda and Alba created an altar that honored both. The aim of the ofrendas is to keep the departed in the daily lives of the living.

Pajaro Valley Arts Dia de los Muertos exhibit 2021
Curator Shirley Flores-Muñoz with Santa Cruz artist Lucien Kubo’s altar marking the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s comforting for children to see something like this,” said curator Flores-Muñoz, gesturing to the candies and toys that were part of the altar to lost children. “It reduces anxiety and fear. In my house, I bring out my grandmother’s pictures, my aunt’s pictures. And I know my children feel better, because when I die, they’ll do the same thing. They’ll bring me back.”

On Friday, with co-sponsorship from the Watsonville Film Festival, PVA will bring the Día de los Muertos spirit to the Watsonville Plaza with a free show of the celebrated Pixar film “Coco,” which has helped bring the Mexican tradition into the American mainstream. The Friday activities will begin with live music and dancing (as well as making of altars) at around 4 p.m., with “Coco” following later.

On Saturday, also at the plaza, the feel will be a bit more somber with a candlelight vigil honoring the dead from 5 to 6 p.m., with music and speakers. That’s followed by a gathering at the PVA gallery over hot chocolate and pan dulce and a screening of the documentary “Common Ground.”

Pajaro Valley Arts 2021 Dia de los Muertos exhibit
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For several days, now through Tuesday, the Watsonville Film Festival will be screening, online for free, the film “La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead,” Lourdes Portillo’s deep dive into the Día de los Muertos tradition in Mexico.

Other events include a writer’s workshop on Zoom hosted by Seattle University professor of women’s studies Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs on Nov. 5; a Zoom poetry event hosted by the Santa Cruz Writers of Color on Nov. 11; a book discussion on the book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, also on Zoom, on Nov. 18; and an in-person workshop by artist Graciela Vega at the PVA Gallery on Nov. 20.

“Mi Casa Es Su Casa: History, Loss, and Healing” is open to the public at the PVA gallery, 37 Sudden St., Watsonville. Opening reception is Sunday, Nov. 7, at 1 p.m.

Pajaro Valley Arts 2021 Dia de los Muertos exhibit
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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