Bay Area Students Learn to Create a Traditional Altar in Honor of Dia de los Muertos

ACTA - Posted on 02 November 2005

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Article and photos by Mari Pongkhamsing, ACTA's Speical Projects Coordinator

Master Mexican papel picado artist Herminia Albarran RomeroCreating a traditional altar for Dia de los Muertos is an art that requires many different skills, from the preparation of altar foods to the careful placement of altar decorations.  Last month, Bay Area students had the opportunity to learn some of these skills from master artist Herminia Albarran Romero, through a series of workshops offered at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco.  The project was supported by ACTA’s Folk and Traditional Arts Mentorship Initiative with funding from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund.  Romero is a master papel picado (the art of Mexican paper cutting) artist and altarista, from the village of San Francisco de Asis, Mexico, who recently received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Known especially for her skills as a paper artist, Romero taught students how to make paper flowers and colorful papel picado banners.  To create papel picado banners she uses tiny surgical scissors to cut intricate symmetrical designs into carefully folded tissue paper.  Romero encourages beginners to trace their design with a pencil before they cut, though she doesn’t use this technique.  Working quickly, she draws applause from students who watch her elaborate designs emerge from a blank square of paper.  Students glue each paper square to long pieces of string which are then stretched across the ceiling. In addition to paper arts, Romero taught her students how to prepare altar foods, and took them to a local bakery to sample pan para los muertos (bread for the dead).

Mexican papel picado (cut paper)Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, usually celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, is a holiday which honors and celebrates loved ones who have passed away.  In addition to papel picado, paper flowers, and pan para los muertos, traditional altars often include photos of loved ones who have passed away, marigolds, sugar skulls, fruit and other foods as offerings to the deceased, and cartoneria (papier mache) sculptures.  In California, many artists have incorporated new artistic forms and expressions into their Day of the Dead altars, but the traditional knowledge that Romero shares is highly valued.

The paper flowers and banners that Romero and her students made were used to create a community altar which will be on display in the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts’ Dia de los Muertos Exhibit entitled "Nichos y Recuerdos: El Círculo de la Luz (Niches & Memories: A Circle of Light)" through November 23, 2005.  Visit the Center’s website for more information about the altars and other Dia de los Muertos events.

Mexican papel picado (cut paper)

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