Dia de los San Franciscanos

How a Mexican tradition came to be our own

Faces of death: A pair of 2010 DOTD celebrants pose in front of Rene Yañez's SOMArts 3-D altar installation



ARTS AND CULTURE Rene Yañez, the godfather of San Francisco's Dia de los Muertos, is showing off the art for his new 3-D altar. The artist is hardly one to adhere to traditions, though he played a large role in creating one of the city's most distinctive and popular interpretations of another country's cultural celebrations.

Yañez's elastic sense of the holiday's expression mirrors the way his city has interpreted the Mexican holiday. Traditionally, Dia de los Muertos marks the time of year when the boundaries of the dead and living blur. Towns south of the border celebrate the day (which was synced with All Saint's Day by the Catholic Church to capitalize on the cultural resonance of an indigenous celebration) by decorating the graves of loved ones with favorite treats and trinkets of those who've passed on.

But kicking the bucket doesn't preclude your party pass on Dia de los Muertos. "The whole point of Day of the Dead is that we're honoring death but mocking it," says Martha Rodriguez, a Mexico City musician who curates the Dia de los Muertos San Francisco Symphony family concert that celebrates this year's centennial of the Mexican Revolution.

"Through all the uprisings and death, there's always space for fun," Rodriguez says. "That's kind of how Mexicans survive — we do not stop celebrating."

Perhaps it's the mix of spiritual connection, gravity, and levity — not to mention the stylin' calaveras and brightly-colored floral iconography — that has made the celebration resonate here. The city hosts what is arguably the largest Muertos festivities in the country, featuring altar displays at SOMArts, the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, and Garfield Park, as well as a procession that organizers expect to attract 100,000 participants.

Yañez and son Rio are the curators of the SOMArts' epic yearly altar installation — an atmospheric production that transforms SOMArts' drafty main hall into a series of reflective spaces that pay homage to fallen family members, casualties of natural disasters, manmade conflict, and even beloved gatos who have gone to that litter box in the sky.

The elder Yañez's involvement with SF Dia-ing goes back to the early 1970s when he was artistic director at Mission's Galeria de la Raza, a time when the neighborhood was absorbing political exiles from political strife in South and Central America. A way to observe the day of remembrance was needed. "We talked about creating a ritual, a ceremonial exhibit," he says.

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