Article - Office of College Advancement

Skulls come out for Ohlone display of Mexican culture

By Todd R. Brown, Staff writer.

Saturday, October 27, 2007—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area.

Fremont—Tiny skeletons play pool on a little table with skulls in place of billiard balls, while a mini-mirror on the wall reflects the frozen action in the tableaux, a scene that shows the departed as still full of life.

Nearby are sugar skulls with blue sequined eyes, some with pigtails attached to their craniums, and an orange-painted birdhouse that is about to go up on the wall.

"Birds are messengers of the gods," said Margaret Stainer, a fine arts professor at Ohlone College and director of its Louie Meager Art Gallery. "It's interesting, the Mexican color of death is orange."

A modest exhibit on the Day of the Dead opened Friday outside the gallery in the Smith Center lobby, and Stainer and a class of her students prepared the works for display earlier this week.

Stainer, who lives in Niles, said she plans to have pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, at the exhibit, which will be on display through Nov. 9. She noted that the bread is covered with pink-colored sugar but has no sugar in it.

Also, she said three of her previous students brought back "calaveras" or sugar skulls—each made in a distinctive folk art style—from their villages in Mexico during holiday breaks. They will be shown on an "ofrenda," an altarfor offerings to the dead.

"We do celebrate it at my house," said Maritza Silvas, 18, of Fremont, one of Stainer's students whose parents are from Mexico City. "Mostly it's a big family gathering. Sometimes we go to the cemetery (to visit) my grandparents and uncles. It's something like Halloween, mostly honoring our ancestors."

The Oakland Museum of California also is running a Day of the Dead exhibit through Dec. 2. Evelyn Orantes, cultural arts developer for the museum, said the Aztec and Mayan tradition originally took place in the summer for up to a month.

The Catholic church converted Central American Indians in part by grafting Christian holidays onto their ancient ones, she said, so the date was moved to coincide with All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.

"Where we grew up, it's slightly different," said Orantes, who was born in Guatemala. "The Mayan altars tend to look a bit different from the Oaxacan altars."

She also said Guatemalans celebrate the holiday by flying huge kites at cemeteries in order to send messages to the heavens.

"They're almost the size of a room," she said. "Some are 10 feet across."

Sean Nero, 18, of Fremont, a Stainer student who is studying graphic design at Ohlone, said he learned about the tradition of Dia de los Muertos at Castlemont High School in Oakland but had no hands-on experience with it until now.

"Usually in our society, they don't really embrace it, death," he said. "I like that there's a whole culture that embraces it, that isn't afraid of it and honors the whole family thing."

In particular, he said he likes the calaveras.

"They're pretty decorative, cool-looking," he said.

Virginia Slavescu, 53, of San Leandro is interning with the Ohlone gallery to eventually get a certificate to work in an art museum. She pitched in Wednesday with the preparation.

She said she admires how the Day of the Dead helps grieving friends and family "try to bring support (and) try to avoid sadness."

"It's a way of celebrating life instead of death," she said. "We have to make the best of it."

The Romanian native isn't entirely comfortable with reminders of mortality that go with the holiday, though, having lost her best friend to lymphoma in the mid-'90s and her mother to cancer shortly after.

"It's a lot of sadness you see under the glass," she said of one tableaux showing a family gathering. "The family, with the closeness of the ones which are inside, brings a lot of memories."

Stainer said she plans to honor the similar Chinese holiday of Ching Ming, or Grave-Sweeping Day, on April 5 and hopes to get Chicano students at Ohlone involved in putting on a dance performance for the next Day of the Dead exhibit.

"I like art by artists and art by people," Stainer said of the folkloric custom now embraced by professional and everyday artisans. "It's people making things out of love and tradition."

Staff writer Todd R. Brown covers Newark, Ohlone College and ethnic community issues. Reach him at 510-353-7004 or

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