Ernesto Hernandez Olmos is an artist and teacher from Oaxaca, Mexico, living in Bay Area. He has shown his work in prestigious art venues in North America, including The National Autonomous University of Mexico City (UNAM)’ The Oaxacan Institute of Culture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The De Young Museum, The Legion of Honor and The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and in Canada at the Olympic Stadium of Montreal. His lifework intertwines elements of his deeply ingrained traditions and his love of life, teaching, and art.
This year, Ernesto’s artwork is part of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in both the San Rafael’s Canal and Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhoods. He has worked with San Rafael volunteers on art installations for the Saturday, November 5th event beginning as early as September or October.
San Rafael’s Día de los Muertos brings people together to experience a ritual that honors the dead in a celebration of life. The Día de los Muertos committee and community partners work together to have many artists engage the public as they bring to life this cultural tradition.
“In the past,” Ernesto said, “I’ve worked with the volunteers when I built a big painting. They come to my studio, and they work with me. First, I do an introductory class about what we will build. I show them all the ready materials. If we are mask-making, I explain how to do it. I put the materials out and teach them by example, and after that start with just creating and creating. I explained to them what colors we would use if it were a mural painting. I even show them how to use certain brushes to get the right effect. A round brush will give you a different effect than a flat one.”
* * * * *
San Rafael’s Día de los Muertos committee includes Zoe Harris, 84, a teacher who fell in love with Day of the Dead in the mid 1970s after a study trip to Mexico organized through Galería de la Raza. The San Francisco-based gallery wrote a grant and received funds from the California Arts Council for Zoe to travel to Mexico to learn all she could about the tradition of Día de los Muertos. Upon her return, she would teach adults and children in San Francisco what she had learned. She continues teachings today. Her journey of discovery has never ended. Now a resident of San Rafael, her home is filled with images and figurines depicting the celebration. Some she’s collected herself, and others are gifts from friends who enjoy adding to her collection.
“Because of the connections through Galería to do research,” Zoe said, “I was invited to go on a tour of the villages where they were judging the altars. At the time, the President of Mexico worried that the celebration was dying down, so he wanted to promote the tradition. I got to photograph in the homes, which was amazing. Their altars were beautiful.”
* * * * *
Marina Palma began creating alters 12 years ago through Día de los Muertos at the Albert Boro Community Center in San Rafael. Marina, who identified herself as a Salvadorian and a community volunteer, moved from San Francisco to the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael. She explained that if she were in her own country to celebrate this tradition, it would be a simpler celebration. Her family would go to the cemetery, bring music, and clean up the individual plot areas to honor and celebrate lost loved ones. It wasn’t until she lived far from her birthplace that she learned of the Mexican-style tradition of building an altar.
Marina said, “It makes sense to put together a complete memory of your loved ones, especially if you’re in an area where you can’t go to their grave anymore. I also learned that during a Day of the Dead celebration, you can highlight concerns. Political concerns, personal concerns, community concerns, to wake people up about what’s going on. One year, I dedicated an altar to the 42 missing students in Mexico. Last year, I did one for people who passed away from COVID-19. I already signed up to build my altar for this year.”
Marina is currently searching for a figurine of a dog at the gate which is a guide to the next life. This year, she has a particular reason for finding that figurine to adorn her altar. “My mother passed away this summer,” she said, “so I am dedicating the altar to my mom’s life.”
* * * * *
There are many ways for all Marin residents to participate in San Rafael’s event. Ernesto Hernandez Olmos teaches the papel picado workshop, making this traditional folk art using colored construction paper and tissue paper, and cutting our ornate designs using an X-Acto knife. Ernesto’s Papel Picado Workshop is taught in Spanish and English on the Marin Multicultural Center’s Facebook page. Papel picado is an ancient tradition in Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico. Originally made from the bark from the mulberry and fig trees, called amatl (amate), that was pounded into paper and used in healing ceremonies and ceremonies to ask that wishes and desires come true. Cut-out designs could also be chiseled out with a tool.
Ernesto’s travels and studies have taught him the connections between the indigenous, sentient peoples of the world. These connections include honoring the journey of the dead. Several cultures believe a black dog guards the gate to the underworld or guides the dead’s journey over water to the other side.
He explained, “The Egyptian, Tibetan, and Aztec cultures share similarities. I believe we are connected, but we forgot; we lost the consciousness about how we were connected.”
* * * * *
Since Día de los Muertos in San Rafael is a way to explore and honor our connection to one another, there are many ways to take an active role in the celebration. See the following options:
- If you would like to volunteer for a minimum of three hours on the day of the event, get involved here.
- The Multicultural Center of Marin will be running a continuous free shuttle service between the Marin Health and Wellness Campus (3240 Kerner Blvd) and the Al Boro Community Center at Pickleweed from 3:00 to 9:30 p.m. on November 5th. Marin Transit Trip Planner
Kate Fitzsimmons is a freelance writer and fund development professional. Her writing skills were honed as a Contributing Editor to The San Francisco Review of Books where she interviewed John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Walker and others. She works with businesses, nonprofits and entrepreneurs to assist them in raising their visibility through their stories. When she isn’t writing, she is cooking for friends, collecting art or engaged in a good novel.