Dead Days

Petaluma's El Dios celebration just keeps getting stronger


the arts | stage |

CULTURAL STRUCTURE:Peter Perez’s joyful skeletons enliven Petaluma’s annual celebration.

By Hallie O’Donnell

The skeletons move across the terrain in jubilation, their bones rigidly and delicately interlocked. Humerus, ulna and radius stretch toward the heavens. Sombreros sit atop their craniums. It is as if they feel the call back to the temporal realm, and are beckoned to return in spirit form.

This imagery lives inside the latest poster for Petaluma’s annual El Dia de los Muertos celebration, reminding us that the dead can still be given animation via the colorful celebration of their memories.

The skull, which is the most anatomically recognizable symbol in the Day of the Dead, acts as a harbinger of the inevitable and a concrete experiential reminder of our biological, intellectual and spiritual blueprint as a species, and why we need to fulfill the duty of paying homage to just being alive.

Marjorie Helm, who is a cofounder of Petaluma’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration, running Oct. 17–Nov.2, talks enthusiastically about it being an instrument to help build bridges between the Anglo and Latino communities. To mourn and to do it with a sense of celebratory gusto and a sense of humor not often present in the death rites of Western Europe and the United States is what makes this event unique. This year, there will be 70 altars at 64 venues around the city, and three community altars where anyone can bring a photograph of a loved one who has passed and make offerings. The community altar, Helm says, is a place where people share anecdotes, thus acting as a therapeutic outlet for the participants.

Peter Perez, now 69, is the man behind the posters created each year, and acts as the event’s founding artist. He is currently curating the ancillary Dia de los Muertos exhibit housed in Petaluma’s new Art Center, displaying altars created from artists around the Bay Area.

Perez has had an illustrious career as a graphic designer, when he started doing artwork in the early 1960s, landing him first in Manhattan and then in Boston. He remembers a time many years ago when a friend’s mother told him that with the gift he had he would “draw his way out of poverty.” He internalized this and promptly left his job doing computer work at a gas company so he could go to art school and run with his dreams.

Serendipity was also a factor when Helm and Perez met, becoming friendly at a dog park, of all places, in 2000. They decided to join collaborative forces, and along with other Day of the Dead cofounder Abraham Solar, brought the idea to the city of Petaluma, and a new event was born.

Every year for the past eight, the celebration has built momentum. The celebration seems to fully embrace the idea that in order to really live, death must be accepted and given its fair dose of comic relief, acknowledging that absurdity is part and parcel of our mortal precipice.

Death and life walk hand in hand for Perez. Alluding to the altars, he says, “It’s beautiful to see how people honor their departed. There are all the traditional elements, and each one is uniquely different and special. They have the mementos and the things that person enjoyed in life and would like to maybe come back and enjoy for an evening.

 “The Latino culture,” he adds warmly, “has way more acceptance of death. We will all get a chance at it.”


Petaluma’s El Dia de los Muertos celebration runs Oct. 17–Nov. 2. Maps of altar locations are available at the Petaluma Art Center, the Petaluma Library, the Historical Museum and downtown stores. The opening event is slated for Sunday, Oct. 19, from 1pm to 4pm at the St. Vincent de Paul Church Square. The celebration ends Nov. 2 with a candlelit procession, mariachis and big puppets in downtown. There are events almost every day. Petaluma Art Center, 230 Lakeville St., Petaluma. For more details, go to

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