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Celebrating the dead

Artist Juan Gonzales celebrates Dia de los Muertos — the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead — by dedicating an artistic altar to his mother and grandparents. This year, his altar made of family photos, breast cancer ribbons, old records and food items is on display at The Haggin Museum.

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Posted: Friday, October 29, 2010 8:10 am

Woodbridge artist Juan Gonzalez remembers his mother with bright orange and yellow marigolds, framed black and white photos, pink ribbons and ceramic skeleton dolls.

Each year, Gonzalez builds an altar for the Mexican tradition Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead, a bright-colored holiday to celebrate the lives of friends and family members who have died. Gonzalez, 65, has been building altars for the holiday since he was in his 40s. This year, however, he was commissioned by Stockton’s Haggin Museum to build its annual altar, displayed in the museum through next week.

The altar is four tiers tall in the middle of the foyer of the Haggin Museum. On the ground are candles in the shape of a cross surrounded by a sprinkling of festive marigolds, his mother’s favorite records, offerings of fruit and dried pinto beans in a traditional stone mortar. There are knitting needles and yarn, along with pink and blue poncho blankets his mother made for his two daughters, Sandra and Monica.

A black and white photo of his mother is framed with a pink ribbon on the corner, commemorating her struggle with breast cancer. Next to her is her thick Spanish Bible and more candles. There are also photos of his grandparents, as the altar is dedicated to the memory of his entire family.

Dia de los Muertos, however, is not meant to be a sad holiday.

“It’s supposed to give you life,” Gonzalez said. “You’re not celebrating death, you’re celebrating life.”

Looking at the altar, Gonzalez sees his family tree, with his grandparents on the top and images triumphs and struggles, from new births to breast cancer, trickling down.

“The unity of a family, you never forget,” he said.

Gonzalez’s daughter, Sandra, is proud of her father’s creation. When she looks at the altar, she remembers as a child wearing the knitted poncho. But aside from memories, it gives her a unique perspective on her family’s history.

“This is the American dream right here ... every generation striving to do better than the last,” she said.

The kettle with a plastic pig illustrates the story of how Gonzalez’ mother would cook using every part of the pig. Her collection of records reminds him of her great singing voice and his best memories, like when she would simply wash clothes for him and his three siblings. He displays statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe that his mother had, and now his daughter collects them.

The Haggin has been displaying Day of the Dead altars for a few weeks in October and November for 12 years. Lisa Cooperman is the curator of education who orchestrates the exhibit. For her, it’s a way for people to learn about another culture, and a way for people to connect to their own heritage.

Gonzalez’ is one of the most traditional altars that has been displayed at the Haggin.

“I find it a very emotional piece and very beautiful,” Cooperman said.

Cooperman, who has experienced the Day of the Dead holiday in Mexico, says people still gather at gravesites to create altars and spend the night.

“It’s not morbid, it’s not scary. It’s a celebration,” she said.

Skulls are a big part of the holiday. People paint skulls on their own faces and on folklore pieces. Calaverases, such as the most popular la Catrina, are the sculpted figurines of skeletons in long dresses and big hats.

Day of the Dead is Nov. 2, but the celebrations last up to a week. In Mexico, there are parades in the streets, bakeries prepare special pastries called pan de muerto and people paint their faces in honor of their loved ones. 

As a child growing up in Guanajuato, Mexico, Gonzalez would join in to the celebrations because he saw an opportunity to make money. He would fill buckets of water and carry them around the cemetery, selling the water for one or two    pesos to people as they scrubbed gravestones before decorating them.

Gonzalez moved with his family to Texas when he was 13 years old. His Mexican heritage has always been displayed in his artwork, though his mother urged him to be a doctor or lawyer.

Gonzalez ran away from home when he was still a teenager. He headed to California, where he met his wife, Ramona. When they married, the rest of his family left Texas and followed Gonzalez to the Central Valley.

The painter and sculptor has made a living with  his artwork. His home studio is filled with glass jars of used paintbrushes and walls of bright paintings that show Gonzalez’ unique folk style. Gonzalez shows throughout the country, and has an upcoming show at the Mexican Heritage Center in Stockton. Next year, he is going to begin a five-year painting project creating a total of 50 paintings based on the environment and social justice.

Gonzalez’ own life, whether it’s erecting artful altars for his family or painting scenes of life and history, honors his heritage and his past. For him, it’s simple. He creates because he loves to and he feels the need to. And his mother is always looking down on him from a black-and-  white photo in his studio.

“I’m celebrating life the way she taught me how,” he said.

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