A bright, colorful Day of the Dead altar in the lobby of Sacramento State’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives is not only an exquisite piece of art, but a loving tribute to the many influential Chicanos who have helped shape the local community’s history and culture.
El Dia de los Muertos originated in Mexico and begins at midnight the night of Oct. 31. Like Halloween, the observance includes many images of death. But unlike Halloween, the focus is not on fearing death, but on celebrating the lives and memories of those who have died.
One custom of El Dia de los Muertos is the creation of altars designed to welcome departed spirits.
The altar in Special Collections was created over a total of 14 hours by Chicana altaristas Lupe Portillo and Andrea “YaYa” Porras as part of the Mexican American Education Project & Chicano Movement Oral History Initiative, a project launched by Senon Valadez, Sacramento State professor emeritus of anthropology.
The tribute recognizes 100 Mexican American Education Project Fellows, professors and community members who participated in the Chicano civil rights and social and cultural movement of the 1960s and early ’70s, Valadez says. Many of those honored were Sacramento State alumni or professors.
Portillo has been creating Day of the Dead altars for 40 years. For the last 38 years she has constructed the altar at the St. Mary’s Cemetery observance and will do so again Saturday, Nov. 2, starting her work at 9:30 a.m. to be ready by the 2 p.m. procession.
“El Dia de los Muertos is the time to recognize our ancestors with prayer and offerings,” Portillo says. “This is something I learned from my grandmother when I was a little girl.”
The altar at Sac State includes photos and other memorabilia about those being honored, which includes Mayor Joseph Serna, Sacramento Poet Laureate Jose Montoya and artist Ricardo Favela.
“The folks who are in there were pathfinders and we stand on their shoulders,” Porras says. “They were internationally recognized and were very integrated in their community with upholding tradition, and reviving tradition.”
“I see the altar as an art form that’s all about community and memory,” says department head Sheila O’Neill. She adds that Collections is an appropriate place for the altar because of its collection that focuses on Chicano history.
“The altar represents a very solemn tribute to the life experiences of all those people who came to Sacramento and were our friends,” Valadez says. “They were people we met and laughed with and cried with, and celebrated victories and defeats.”
The altar went up Sept. 28 and will remain in place until the semester ends in December. Office hours are 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. It’s drawing a lot of attention just from passersby, says department librarian Julie Thomas. “People walking by the office will stop in their tracks and come in to admire the altar,” she says.