Oranges on the Altars for Fruitvale's Day of the Dead
Published 4:00 am, Friday, October 27, 2000
Are you looking for food for the dead? It's picnic time at the cemetery, and, in Fruitvale's Hispanic community, time for hungry ghosts to come to supper.
"Angelitos somos, del cielo venimos, a pedir ayote para que comamos," runs one Mexican popular song. "We're little angels, coming from the heavens, in search of a good meal we can eat."
This is when families build an altar, or ofrenda, to offer a ceremonial meal to the dearly departed. Brilliant garlands of marigolds, or zempasuchitl, as they are known in Mexico, are set out on altar cloths along with the photographs and keepsakes of the deceased. Then the family adds representations of their loved ones' favorite foods: mole, as often as not, and chocolate; fruit or even a bottle of Tecate.
Roberto Vargas, who has been a community leader in Oakland for a good quarter of a century now, always puts out the longshoreman's hook that belonged to his father, who worked in the shipyards. Alongside, he sets a bowl of walnuts -- his father never snacked on junk food. "It's a way to remind my family that's what we're about," he recalled recently at the Oakland Museum's Day of the Dead festivities. "We want to be open to death as a part of our realities."
Piled up at El Corazon del Pueblo, a Fruitvale import store on International Boulevard, are papier mache zucchini to put on the altars, as well as rubber sugar cane, plaster limes, Styrofoam doughnuts (very convincing and powdery) and even a little heap of beans -- plastic frijoles.
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At Pena's Bakery a few blocks down the street, Ramon Pena, a baker for 35 years, is kneading up the soft, sweet Mexican dough for pan de muerto. He bakes it in two shapes, a round loaf decorated with knobbly strips of dough to look like bones, and an ectoplasmic gingerbread man with two legs and chocolate chips for eyes, livened up by a buttercup-colored frosting of margarine and sugar.
And Yolanda Tell, at her cavernous beauty parlor on Fruitvale Avenue, has imported from Mexico a nest of sugar skulls, or calaveritas de azucar. Translucent, brittle shells made in ancient clay molds, they are decorated with shiny paper and incongruous squiggles of frosting. She'll be selling them this Sunday at Fruitvale's Dia de los Muertos celebration, which closes 10 blocks along International Avenue for the neighborhood's biggest fiesta of the year.
It wasn't so long ago that the Day of the Dead had practically died out in California. In 1975, when she started teaching in the Oakland Unified School District, Josefina Lopez, who owns El Corazon del Pueblo, suggested to colleagues that she introduce El Dia de los Muertos to her students. Her proposal was rejected -- people associated this ancient ritual with a past they had abandoned.
But since then, Chicano activists have reclaimed their Mexican heritage, and the festival on Fruitvale Avenue, the home of so many immigrant families from the states of Michoacan and Jalisco, has taken off.
"It's a celebration about life, not death," says Lopez, "for remembering those who have died and passed on. It's a time to rejoice, to come together."
Now probably the biggest Dia de los Muertos celebration in the Bay Area, it draws crowds of 50,000 to 60,000, splashing color and pumping sound into this vibrant Mexican American quarter on the flatlands by the bay.
Quite apart from checking out the food for the dead on the ceremonial altars, this is a chance to drop in on the cuisine of Central America. It will include fancy tacos de vapor from Otaez Mexicatessen, carnitas from Cardenas, aguas frescas from Carmen's Taqueria; Panchita's Salvadoran pupusas, stuffed pancakes of masa meal; huge tropical smoothies from Fruit 'n' Exotica, as well as kettle corn, Cambodian food and Indian fried bread. And D&M will bring Afro-American fried plantains, black-eyed bean stew and grilled salmon steaks.
Festivals tend to morph through the ages as cultures collide. Just as Christmas has nothing to do with the calendar birthday of Jesus Christ and everything to do with pagan tradition, this pre-Columbian harvest ritual, originally celebrated in the summer, was pushed back into November when the Spanish arrived and bundled it into All Souls' Day or Nov. 2, the day after All Saints'.
The custom of laying out pan de muerto seems to be a conflation of two traditions. In the Spanish towns of Salamanca, Leon and Segovia in the late Middle Ages, wooden images of the saints, covered with bread dough, were given out to the poor on All Saints' Day. And in the New World, the Spaniards who arrived in the 16th century found that the Aztecs put out loaves of amaranth dough, or tzoal, to celebrate the harvest.
Fruitvale was looking for a signature event to spur on the revitalization of the commercial strip along International Boulevard. There were already big Cinco de Mayo celebrations in other cities of the Bay Area, so they settled on El Dia de los Muertos. It has an inclusive spirit that fits well with the multicultural neighborhood of African Americans, Cambodians and Laotians, and now the influx from Bosnia and Eastern Europe.
"Halloween is all goblins and ghouls," says Darlene Rios-Drapkin of the Fruitvale Main Street Program, an arm of the Spanish-Speaking Unity Council, which organizes the event. "El Dia de los Muertos takes it to a more spiritual level. Everyone can relate to someone dying. It really does help people heal."
Past celebrations have helped to bring the diverse community together: One year, there was an altar for the 5-year-old African American boy who was killed when a driver plowed into a local preschool. This year, in his tiny garden apartment off Fruitvale, artist Ruben Guzman is working on a life-size sculpture of Calvin Simmons, the young African American conductor from Oakland who died in 1982.
Last week, in the offices of the council, preparations for the festival were well under way. Artist Daniel Camacho unrolled a mesmerizing banner he painted, showing a luminescent sea of sugar skulls, and Guzman showed off pictures of the giant skeleton puppets, or monotes, he built for the festival last year, on bamboo frames. They will be dancing in the streets again this Sunday, to the music of John Santos and the Machete Ensemble, Banda Rio Verde and Xitlalli, a band of long-feathered Aztec dancers.
Guzman and Camacho are good friends, part of an informal local collective of artists. "We come together to drink a lot," said Guzman. "And sometimes we eat."
FRUITVALE FESTIVALThe fifth annual Dia de los Muertos Fruitvale Festival, sponsored by the Unity Council's Main Street Program, takes place from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday over 10 blocks starting at the intersection of International Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue. For information, call (510) 535-6904 or log on at www.unitycouncil.org .
At 6:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Cesar Chavez Branch Library, Rafael Jesus Gonzalez will talk about the Day of the Dead and perform a traditional Aztec ceremony. Free. 1900 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland. (510) 535-5620.