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Celebrating Death To Keep Culture Alive

 March 20, 2019 at 2:58 AM PDT

Home. It’s a feeling more than a place. And the feeling is most intense when it’s gone. Missing home can feel heavy. Make you feel hollow. [Clip 1 Nat sound of music from noche de mole] In Sherman Heights, a neighborhood just east of downtown San Diego, people from all over show up here at the community center to reconnect with a home that’s on the other side of the border. A woman showed her chubby-cheeked baby niece a traditional Mexican altar meant to honor dead relatives. Clip 2 Woman with baby [01:26 - 1:48] I have family in Tijuana and it's always been a part of my life being a border person, border child. And so I want her to bring her out to, to just, um, I don't know, start, start feeling it and living it….being bicultural [speaks spanish to baby, then laughs] Later in the show, we catch up with a pair of artists who want to take a piece of home and deliver it to a traditional Mexican Day of the Dead celebration in San Diego. Clip 22 Luis interview 1 [18:55 - 19:24 ] Luis: to honor the fact that for 25 years the Mexican community have come to this museum to celebrate dia de los meurtos. And they do like a cemetery markup in there. And they do the offrendas. The artists load hundreds of marigolds they grew in Mexico onto a mobile altar they made. Then they try to roll the flowers through the border fence. Things got complicated. I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet. Today, a story about celebrating death as a way of bringing culture back to life. Only here will you find a San Diego community working hard at reconnecting with traditions on the other side of the border, and Tijuana artists bringing that tradition across the border fence. More after the break [sponsor message] Sherman Heights is one of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods. Big, old, Victorian houses are everywhere here. The neighborhood has been home to a few different waves of immigrants. First Germans in the 1920s, then Chinese and Japanese followed by the black community. Nowadays, it’s predominantly Mexican people who call Sherman Heights home. The neighborhood is tight-knit. And part of what holds it so closely together is the community center. [Clip 3 Nat sound of music from noche de mole] Clip 4 Irma Interview 1 [01:22 - 2:15] Irma: I think this is really the hub, uh, to be honest, I feel like the, um, the community members who, who worked really hard to get this to, first of all, this was a piece of land before there was a building here. Um, and uh, when the building came, it's because the community members continue to advocate for the fact that they needed a community center so that the youth had somewhere to go. And um, a lot of those community members have been Mexican American. Fade Out and under VO: And you know, when I first came here to Sherman Heights community center, I worked for a hospice and I came specifically to be involved with Dia de los Muertos because of the hospice. That was the tie. I came here 14 years ago and I never left. So I have been doing the Dia de los Muertos specifically. Um, for 14 years here at Sherman. Yeah. That’s Irma Patricia Aguayo, the community center’s executive director. Back in November, the neighborhood was celebrating the start of Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, the annual holiday celebrated throughout Mexico from October 31 through November 2. The holiday centers around remembering family and friends who’ve died. Dozens of Day of the Dead events are held across the border region every year. But this celebration at the community center is billed as San Diego’s most traditional and longest running. When you don’t live in your family’s homeland, it can be a constant battle to stay connected to your past and traditions. The American way of life has a way of melting everything into one giant pot full of so many ingredients that the flavors are hardly discernible. But in Sherman Heights, the community is not jumping into that big melting pot. Instead, they’re keeping the Mexican flavor alive. [Clip 5 Nat sound music playing] Nearly 25 years ago, neighbors showed up at the center asking if they could build altars inside. Some asked because they didn’t have room in their own homes to build the tributes to their dead loved ones. Others because the bodies of their loved ones laid in graves on the other side of the border, and they missed the sense of community that came with everyone gathering in cemeteries in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos. A few folks built altars here the first year. More the next. And a tradition was born. Now the community builds nearly a dozen altars, and walks in a huge Dia de los Muertos parade through the neighborhood to see other altars. The whole thing ends at another altar display in nearby Logan Heights. Clip 6 Irma Interview 1 [04:14 - 4:38] All the altars are done by community members and it's, this is our 24th annual, the other Los Muertos celebration. So, um, the community members come out, they know to sign up and uh, we don't, we really don't have to do a whole lot of outreach because they know and so they come, they sign up, it's absolutely free and we do it so that, you know, we can preserve the culture and so that they have somewhere to feel, um, that they are healing since we can't do it at the cemeteries At the community center, the Day of the Dead festivities kicked off with noche de mole: it’s an annual fundraiser where people come together to listen to Mexican music, see the altars before they officially open to the public, and eat mole (mole-A). I’ve always had a hard time describing mole to my non-mexican friends, because it’s more than a sauce, and it’s not really a curry, but it’s definitely somewhere between the two. Different regions of mexico make it in different ways. The sights, the sounds, the tastes - they’re all meant to wrap people in that sense of home, and remind them of where they came from. Clip 7 Chef Interview 1 [00:49 - 1:17] Sounds of the busy kitchen, main chef: so put it right next to it so we're not running around looking for it. And the red onions do. Yeah. Perfect. Thank you. And then I need to get that big pie. Where's the patents for the oil? The stretch where we need to get that oil on. Let me see. Where's that other one? That aluminum aluminum pan that we use that we brought. On that night, chef Sergio Garcia Manriquez, who runs a Chicano soul food catering business called Dos Tierras, was making green mole, brown mole, and, for his first time ever, vegan mole. He says he mostly cooks the traditional kind of food his grandma used to make. Clip 8 chef interview 1 [06:57 - ] For me, it's honoring my grandma. Not forgetting her essence, her essence, her and her tradition. Yeah, it, it just reminds me of home and it brings me to a happy place, a happy place that doesn't necessarily require a huge, a huge sums of money. You know, it's the stuff that money can't buy and, you know, I'm me preserving her. Her memory is an essence, ah, allowing her for not to be forgotten and also with my uncles and aunts have all been influenced, influenced this way of eating. So I just hope that it just brings that same feel good to people who haven't had their grandma cook for them in a long time and um, you know, just bring it back. There's nothing was bringing it back. Styles always come back and we're here to do. Just do something a little bit different. People from all over the region come to Sherman Heights to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos because they know it’s authentic. The event here is about more than just seeing beautiful altars filled with pictures of lost loved ones, marigold flowers and calaveras - those are the decorative skulls that have become synonymous with the holiday. People come here to connect with their culture on a deeper level. They come here to deal with death, and help keep the Mexican tradition going. Here’s Irma again: Clip 9 Irma Interview 1 [02:21 - 2:52] it's a spiritual thing first and foremost. It's a very healing. It's, um, you know, everyone's talking about that coco movie and it feels like a movie. But what I tell people is it's, you know, the reality is that I do stand at my altar and I do visit it every day and I do expect my grandmother to come through. And so it's the real experience of having that connection. And then, you know, we are, we're a border city and you know, these traditions have to stay alive if we don't preserve them, you know, um, then they're lost, you know, Upstairs, away from the music and the food, people wandered through about a dozen altars set up throughout the community center. It’s quiet. People took their time standing in front of each one, looking at all the knick-knacks left on the altars, trying to glean the personality of the people being honored. Nancy Alvarado really liked one particular altar that had a lot of personality in it. Clip 11 Nancy Wants [00:23 - 00:34 ] I was just saying this is an excellent alter because it really reflects the character of the person who passed and you know, jokingly, I said, when I die, please don't put fruit on my altar because I didn't fruit when I was alive. I'm certainly not going to eat and when I'm dead. Clip 10 Nancy Wants [00:39 - 00:56 ] Well I love snickers bar and his shirt from where he worked, that shows that he was dedicated to his job at the university catering and they went for chivas because you know, he has good to head good tasting teams at Coca Cola. Just legit things that make me see him as a human being and helped me understand who he was in life. Marisa Cassini says she comes to the center every year to spend time at the altars out of a sense of duty to keep the Mexican tradition alive in her family. At school, her kids are taught about Halloween. At home, she teaches them about Day of the Dead. Clip 13 Laura looking at altar [05:52 - 6:35] Marisa: For me, for myself growing up, being born and raised in San Diego, a lot of these traditions just tend to kind of die out. They die out because we start embracing the traditions that we were taught in school and you know, just we start embracing the American tradition. So for me it's really important to have events like these and for people to educate, to be educated on the alters the significance and this particular event because a lot of people think that it's about Halloween and, you know, painting your face and it has nothing to do with Halloween. So I think it's truly important to us to teach your children about, you know, their culture, their heritage and what all this means. Bill McQuire didn’t grow up in Mexico with the Day of the Dead traditions, but a few years ago he convinced his husband Pedro Castro to start celebrating the holiday in their home. He says his culture, white American culture, never really equipped him with the tools he needed to deal well with the inevitability of death. Clip 14 Laura looking at altar [07:49 - 7:56] Bill: I think it's a wonderful way that the Mexican culture has told us not to be afraid of death and to celebrate our ancestors. Clip 15 Laura looking at altar [08:28 - 9:07] Bill McQuire: usually someone close to us that is um, recently deceased or maybe just somebody in history or in the art who I think has been a very important person in the past. I've made alters to sor Juana, ines de la Cruz, and um Audrey Hepburn. As diverse as that. Recently we've done four pedro's brother and for my own brother, but a lot it has to come from an authentic feeling and if it doesn't then I don't think it's a real altar so. Clip 16 Laura looking at altar [09:11 - ] Pedro: Oh yeah. My father came once. We had a skull, a sugar skull with his name on it, and I dedicated the altar to him. I put up a, the brandy that he liked and then the food they like and some personal stuff that I have from him. I never met my father. He died when I was about a year old and in the morning their sugar skull with his name was bitten. Really true. Messing with them. No, I wouldn't do that. I do have a sick sense of humor, but I would not do that. Clip 17 Laura looking at altar [10:15 - 10:25] Bill: I used to be terrified at the thought and it's made me. I'm like, I'm not dying to die, but it's made me much more comfortable with the thought of my own death. Claudio Ernesto DeLucca runs a Mexican and Latin American gift shop and gallery in San Diego’s Normal Heights Neighborhood. He’s from Brazil, not Mexico, but he’s come to love Day of the Dead. And he thinks it’s fine that non-mexicans want to get in on Dia de los Muertos. Claudio says anyone should be able to adopt any tradition they want, as long as they’re respectful and take the time to learn what it’s really about. Clip 18 Timbuktu guy [05:56 - 6:06] Some people are still don't want to think about it. so they go oh, another wonderful chances to get drunk while dressed up like Frida Kahlo or something. Clip 19 Timbuktu guy [06:59 - 7:32] every single. Everyone in every single culture will die. So what's so holy about being able to remember your ancestors, your relatives, your pets in a formal way of being able to do mourn and remember them formally instead of trying to hide it all in shade. Kinsee: So, it's ok for a gringo to celebrate Mexican traditions? timbuktu guy: of course. What's wrong with that? [music bump] After the break, we head to Tijuana where artists Luis Ituarte and Gerda Govine have built a mobile Day of the Dead altar. Clip 20 Luis Ituarte interview 1 [09:35 - ] so this is a train that I designed it in a way that one person can carry it. (sounds of bumping the train around] Their plan? To roll the altar from Mexico to the United States through the international port of entry. More soon. [midroll break] Artist Luis Ituarte and his wife and collaborator Gerda Govine stood inside an apartment building in Colonia Federal, a neighborhood that touches the border fence in Tijuana. Luis showed off the mobile Dia de Los Muertos altar he made. Clip 21 Luis Ituarte Interview 1 [08:01 - 8:32] Luis: this is the Transnational Cempazuchitl Express. And so you were seeing it for the first time complete because we, it took us a couple of weeks to build it and uh, it took us since July last year that we started the seeds and grow the, the flowers and today we went in the morning and harvest them They loaded the cart they made with hundreds of Cempazuchitl (cem-pa-SUE-chil), a type of marigold flower that he and Gerda grew in Rosarito, a beach town south of Tijuana. Luis and Gerda say the project is meant to be a symbolic gesture, in part to remind people of the migrants who die every year trying to cross the border in search of a better life. But more pragmatically, they wanted to take the flowers they grew themselves to a decades-old Day of the Dead celebration in Escondido, a city in northern San Diego County. It’s a literal piece of home - flowers grown on actual mexican soil -- that they can give to the large, Mexican community that lives in Escondido. Luis says he wanted the people who showed up in Escondido for the celebration to be able to smell the flowers and know they were grown in Mexico just for them. Clip 22 Luis interview 1 [18:55 - 19:24 ] Luis: to honor the fact that for 25 years the Mexican community have come to this museum to celebrate dia de los muertos. And they do like a cemetery markup in there. And they do the offrendas. So this is, this is a project in which I designed it the last July we decided to plant the flowers. So we started from scratch, from the seeds and nourish two acres of land in rosarito, It didn’t take long for Luis and Gerda to figure out that they wouldn’t be able to roll their Day of the Dead altar through the border line as they had planned since it’s not a registered vehicle and doesn’t have a license plate. So instead they rented a uhaul, and the plan was to put the cart on the uhaul trailer and drive the cart through that way. They wanted to load the flowers onto the cart first, so they drove to Rosarito to harvest them. Gerda read a poem she wrote about the flowers right before the group of volunteers with them started picking them. Clip 25 Luis interview 1 [22:35 - 24:00] Gerda: Flowers are the most prolific inspiration for poetry. Bring flowers. People Cross borders every day. Hidden and unhidden some as simple as crossing streets, railroad tracks. FADE out and under VO: When negotiating traffic, detours pushing us into unknown territory, these extra processing becomes more complicated depending on where you're from, what you look like with or without accent frame, by cultural stereotypes laced with ignorance and fear. Flowers Cross borders every day for my neighbor, south of us, Mexico. Beauty waiting trucks with delivery to flower shops, decorate high end restaurant dining tables, make birthdays special, bring freshness to weddings and comfort to those who grieve. Bring flowers with you, if not in your hand, in your disposition. Thoughts, words and behavior. Are we so much different than flowers? We need to be taken care of with proper planting, sunshine, rain for healthy living without being lulled into the matrix. Capture the essence of real life flowers. Call us to look, enjoy, breed. Turn our gaze inward. Ask questions, find answers. As our world tumbles, we inch back, stay steady even if the ground quakes, flowers are the most prolific inspiration for poetry. Luis and Gerda then arranged the hundreds of cempazuchitls in buckets affixed to the cart and got ready to load it on the uhaul and drive it through. [insert nat sound of flower shuffling if you can] They were a little nervous about whether the border patrol agents at the port would let them through. Clip 26 Luis interview 1 [27:01 - 27:24] Gerda: we do have a letter from the museum staying that this is an art project and we would like for them to allow to come through so that we could celebrate the day of the dead. So we've got that letter. So hopefully between that letter and the reality, what we're doing, they will say yes you can. Luis: Yeah. And you know, it's very important that this is really a performance piece. Luis had successfully crossed a large art piece before -- a huge pinata he designed to look like a tank for a performance piece at Border Field State Park. He made it through the border that time without any issues. But this time -- no such luck. The border line was long. It took them hours to get to the port of entry. Once they arrived at the front of the line, the border agents were skeptical and sent them to secondary inspection, a place where border agents take a closer look. Luis called in to give us the update. Clip 27 Luis call [1:01 - 1:18] as soon as we got in there it was a, a guy that, it was very dramatically, almost aggressively saying this, I have to go back, this is commercial, you have to go to otay mesa.. Otay Mesa is another, more commercial port of entry in Eastern Tijuana. They drove the cart there, but no luck there either. Clip 28 Luis call [01:22 - 3:06] ***Cut way down**** And then the guy comes with the flowers and saying we just finalized in the lab and we find some bugs and some stuff in there. And I'm like, we can go through. Their dream of bringing a literal piece of home to the Mexican community in Escondido was gone. But they had to get at least the cart to the event the next day, so they ditched the flowers by handing them out to friends and neighbors in Tijuana. Then they crossed the cart the next day without the flowers and showed up at the museum to deliver the bad news. Luis and Gerda were upset and disappointed. They had spent six months growing the flowers and building the cart. But the museum told the artists not to worry, they’d be willing to buy replac

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When you don’t live in your family’s homeland, it can be a constant battle to stay connected to your past and traditions. The American way of life has a way of melting everything into one giant pot full of so many ingredients that the flavors are hardly discernible. But in Sherman Heights, the community isn’t jumping into that big pot. Instead, they’re keeping the Mexican flavor alive. In this episode, a story about celebrating death as a way of bringing culture back to life. We stop by the annual Day of the Dead celebration at the Sherman Heights Community Center. The event is billed as the border region’s most traditional and longest running Dia de los Muertos celebration. Then we check in with a pair of artists who built a mobile Day of the Dead altar and came up with a plan to roll the altar through the border crossing and bring flowers they grew in Mexico to a Day of the Dead celebration in Escondido. Only here can you find a San Diego community working hard at reconnecting with traditions on the other side of the border, and artists in Tijuana bringing that tradition across the border fence.