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Viva The Day of The Dead

The annual Dia De Los Muertos exhibit invokes emotion, showcases creativity.

Each fall, the Pajaro Valley Arts Council and Gallery opens its doors for local artists and school groups to build Dia De Los Muertos altars memorializing loved ones lost.

The title of the annual exhibit, "Mi Casa Es Tu Casa," is quite fitting, especially because the gallery is a converted house on Sudden Street in Watsonville.

This year's show features more than 25 altars.

"We've encouraged participants to interpret the altar building," said Lily Mandel, administrative director for PVAC.

Dia De Los Muertos is a Mexican holiday honoring loved ones who have died. It traditionally falls on Nov. 1-2 and can include altars, memorials, grave-cleaning and parties.

Adapting the Latino celebration to one's culture, religion or life experiences brings a plethora of creativity into the small gallery: one artist created an altar inspired by the Ching Ming Festival, a similar tradition in China that honors dead relatives. Another altar ties Mexican and Irish history together.

E.A. Hall Middle School teacher Joanne Borbolla used the holiday as a catalyst for studies in her class. First, her student read "The Afterlife," and created an altar for the main character, who was murdered. From there, they researched Dia De Los Muertos and made an altar to honor someone important in their lives.

"It was a fun project," said Borbolla. "A lot of them just knew kind of what it was, but they didn't know the history."

The student projects, each in a white shoebox, used traditional materials, such as marigold leaves and sugar skulls, which the kids made themselves.

Other altars in the exhibit relied on a broader interpretation of the holiday. A group of young artists from across the county created an imposing street art display accented by airbrushed paint cans and skateboards.

Students in the SOS program through the county Office of Education covered an entire wall with photos—deceased loved ones in the center surrounded by faces of influential people who have died—and decorated the backdrop with black light-sensitive paint to create a surreal glow around the display.

Instructor Charmaine Ryan said she does the Dia De Los Muertos project with her students each year. They also read Soto's book and are using it to do a comparative study about religion and afterlife, explore the concept of self and study metaphors.

"We're trying to tie it all in," she said, while admiring the display with her students on a recent afternoon.

The students worked on the project for 3-4 weeks.

There are "a lot of intense stories, actually, all of them," Ryan said, gesturing at the altar and referring to the loved ones lost that students honored in the project.

But the surrounding photos add some levity, she added.

"It's kind of funny when you have Mother Teresa and then Tupac but I like it," Ryan said.

The exhibit will be up until Dec. 18. Admission is free.

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