.Annual Dia de los Muertos Exhibit Goes Multicultural

The new exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center, “Honoring Life: Love and Remembrance,” takes a multicultural approach to display the ways various cultures deal with the death of loved ones.

How a culture celebrates its dead profoundly affects how the people of that culture treat the living and commit to their own lives. Perhaps this explains the broader resonance of the famous Mexican and American holiday, Dia de los Muertos.

Every year in Petaluma, which is over 20% Spanish speaking, the Petaluma Arts Center (PAC) shares its resources in support of local Dia de los Muertos activities, including a culminating fiesta with Mexican music and food. Several local groups have been organizing the associated activities together for years. PAC’s major contribution is the annual exhibition displaying ofrendas, artistically elaborate offerings to the recent dead among the family and friends of the creators. 

“Every ancient culture has its own way of following rituals to honor ancestors, usually around the fall or autumn, just like in Mexico,” said exhibit curator Irma Vega Bijou in an email interview. “In California, we have many culturally rich stories to share.”

For the first time, organizations outside of Mexican culture will be sharing their own cultural rituals in the exhibition. The California Indian Museum and Cultural Center and the Redwood Empire Chinese Association are two such participating organizations. 

The Redwood Empire Chinese Association will share examples of Ching Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Day. “Ching Ming is a time to visit the graves of departed family [members]. Grave sites are swept, cleaned and decorated with flowers. Food, tea or wine is brought to feed the ghosts. Incense and joss paper, representing money, is burned so the departed will be happy and wealthy in their other-world life,” according to the association.

The California Indian Museum and Cultural Center will provide an altar that honors heroes who gave their lives to protecting Indian lands and revitalizing tribal culture. According to the museum, “California tribal communities are dynamic and continue to be shaped by their members.” Indeed, whether adhering to ancient traditions or manifesting new ones, the people of participating cultures know that the dead have been and will always be with the living. 

“[The groups participating] all have their unique way to honor ancestors and loved ones, and PAC is a great place to open the doors for this inclusive event in support of our community,” said Bijou. 

The visibility of this celebratory showering of lost loved ones with beauty is a gift from Mexican culture to all of us. Now, with the help of PAC and local organizations, this gift is widening the tent to share space with valued traditions from other cultures represented in Sonoma County. 

‘Honoring Life: Love and Remembrance’ will be showing at the Petaluma Arts Center from Oct. 6-Nov. 5. Opening Reception is Thursday, Oct. 6, 5:30-7:30pm.


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