Altar Making Demonstration Honors the Dead at Mission College’s Vargas Gallery
By Cynthia Cheng

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Altar Making Demonstration Honors the Dead at Mission College’s Vargas Gallery

Wooden planks and orange and yellow flowers covered the floor at Mission College’s Vargas Gallery on Tuesday, Oct. 25. About 30 students at the community college’s university preparatory Puente program gathered to learn how to use the wood and flowers to assemble a star (representing the north, south, east, west and in the middle, the sun) for a Día de los Muertos altar. Falling on Nov. 1 to Nov. 2 this year, Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is a Latin holiday where the dead is honored.

“The students are bringing things to remember their families and ancestors,” says Aram Shepherd, Puente program co-coordinator and English instructor. Shepherd pointed out that the altar also comes with a table holding photographs of deceased loved ones and offerings, such as pan (bread), tortillas, decorated sugar skulls and candles.

Community member Antonieta Bustamante facilitated the altar building demonstration and shared insights about Día de los Muertos, including a story behind the cempasúchil flowers students used to decorate the altar.

“Before México was a country, Tenoch, the leader of the Aztecs, led all the people from Aztlan. They were looking for a place to settle. It took many years to find it and many people died,” Bustamante says. “The Aztecs prayed to the sun god Tonatiuh for flowers to mark the graves of the ancestors so people would know the trails where their ancestors had died. Then cempasúchil flowers appeared everywhere where the people were praying. These flowers are only available this season. People refer to these flowers as marigolds but they are not, even though they look similar to marigolds.”

Also at the Vargas Gallery are works by eight artists in the Día de los Muertos at Mission Art Exhibit, which opened in mid-October and will run until Nov. 8.

Francisco Franco’s “Marilyn Muerta” depicts Marilyn Monroe in a sultry portrait with her face decorated as a sugar skull.

“I saw Francisco Franco’s art at Chaco’s Restaurant and I think his work is very striking and well-executed with the color, composition and attention to detail,” says Lynne Todaro, art instructor and director of the Vargas Gallery.

Bryn Del Mano’s “Woman and Cat Skeleton” shows the enduring affection between a woman and her pet.

“I saw Bryn Del Mano’s tiles at a craft show and they really stood out,” Todaro says. “They’re original takes on the traditional subject of Day of the Dead art.”

Elizabeth Jiménez Montelongo, a Santa Clara-based artist, is showing four pieces of art, including “Ancestral Connections.”

“‘Ancestral Connections’ is a painting from my series, ‘Sorrow, Death, and Butterflies,’” Montelongo says. “The woman in my painting honors her ancestors with her face decorated as a skull and she welcomes the next generation with the child in her arms and a child in her womb. So she is at once a daughter and a mother, a descendant and an ancestor.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 2, an artist reception will take place at the Vargas Gallery and Gillmor Lobby from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Hot chocolate and pan dulce (a traditional Méxican sweet bread) will be served.

The Vargas Gallery is located inside the Gillmor Center at Mission College. Mission College is located at 3000 Mission College Blvd.