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Mexic-Arte Museum Creates A Shared Space To Remember Lost Loved Ones This Día De Los Muertos

Danielle Houtkooper, development coordinator at the Mexic-Arte Museum, hangs submitted photos of deceased loved ones for a Día de los Muertos exhibit.
Danielle Houtkooper, development coordinator at the Mexic-Arte Museum, hangs submitted photos of deceased loved ones for a Día de los Muertos exhibit.

In the back exhibit of the Mexic-Arte Museum, some 100 picture frames line three walls. They’re filled with photos of everyday people — fathers, sisters, daughters, uncles — who have died, each one accompanied by a note written by a loved one. We miss you. Always in our hearts. Some frames are decorated with bright flowers, crosses and beloved sports team logos. Others are simple.

On one bottom row, a blue hand-painted frame holds a photo of a smiling couple. A phrase is painted in small letters below the picture: “Juntos para siempre.” Together forever. The note beside it explains the couple died in January, “within 25 minutes of each other and just one month shy of their 40th wedding anniversary.”

“They died of COVID,” it reads.

Each year since opening in the 1980s, the Mexic-Arte Museum in downtown Austin has hosted a Día de los Muertos exhibit, celebrating the Mexican holiday during which people remember their departed family members. This year, the museum asked the public to get involved by submitting photographs and memories of loved ones they want to honor.

Death has been an especially prominent part of daily life this past year and a half, between the COVID-19 pandemic and severe weather events, like February’s winter freeze and flooding on the Gulf Coast. In light of that, the museum wanted to create a shared space where people could come together and remember, says the museum’s director, Sylvia Orozco.

“We’re all right now very close to death. It’s like it’s among us,” she said. “And so I think it helps to share a space with other people, bring community together, just to be in the presence with other people to share these same experiences.”

The exhibit, Nuestra Comunidad/Our Community — Memory and Remembrance, opened Friday and runs until Nov. 22. (Visitors are required to wear masks.)

In addition to celebrating Día de los Muertos, the exhibit also includes an installation that pays tribute to those buried at San José Cemetery, a historic Mexican and Mexican-American cemetery in the East Austin neighborhood of Montopolis.

A wall of black and white photos showcases the cemetery’s most notable features — a dilapidated metal archway that reads “San José Cementerio,” a giant oak tree that stands in the middle of the plot and the many headstones that dot the 2.5 acres, each one unique.

The series of photographs was put together by (Re)claiming Memories, a research group out of UT Austin that seeks to restore and preserve missing histories in communities of color. After finding little recorded history about the cemetery, and its sister site San José II in Del Valle, the group began researching and documenting the cemeteries’ histories last year. San José was built around 1919, and it’s believed to be unclaimed, meaning no one is responsible for its upkeep in an official way.

Diana Hernandez, the group’s lead researcher, said, to outsiders, the cemetery may look rundown and ignored, but that’s not the case.

“Even though to many it may look like a neglected space, it isn't,” she said. “It's taken care of. It has been taken care of by the community.”

Many of the founding members of the Montopolis community are buried at San José, as well as people from various faiths and Indigenous groups. Marika Alvarado's grandparents and four other family members are buried at San José.

“They didn’t have paved roads when we were there, we were kids, but everybody would come together and share stories from the directions they came from,” Alvarado, a Lipan Mescalero Apache who grew up in Montopolis, said. “And to me, that was the beauty of that neighborhood and that community.”

The black and white photographs in the installation include a portrait of her grandparents, as well as photographs of her family members’ headstones and the plants that surround the graves — something Alvarado knows a lot about. She’s a direct descendant of generations of medicine women and teaches traditional Indigenous medicine, using plants to heal.

Though many people may not be aware of it, she says a lot of the plants around the cemetery, like cedar trees and white mulberry, were planted intentionally by Indigenous people and have certain meanings.

“A lot of the plants are put into the space because a person that was a traditional healer had passed,” she said. “And so [that’s a] remembrance of the work they did.”

Alvarado will be giving a presentation at the museum about the plants and their significance in November (date TBD). She'll be joined by Margaret Gallagher, a landscape architecture graduate student and member of (Re)claiming Memories, who took the photographs of the cemetery for the exhibit. Gallagher said she hopes the project gives people a better understanding of the cemetery and its significance, which she says is especially important as the Montopolis community continues to be impacted by gentrification and development.

“Really the underlying idea was like, how can we make this information more accessible to people and how can we help foster connections to the space that people might not have had otherwise?” she said.

In addition to remembering the loved ones of Austin residents, the Mexic-Arte Museum is also featuring an exhibit that showcases how people in Mexico celebrate Day of the Dead.

Near the front of the museum, a large ofrenda, or altar, greets guests. It’s typical of the style found in the Mexican state of Michoacán, decorated with marigolds, bowls of fruit, candles and papel picado, tissue paper with elaborate designs cut out. During Día de los Muertos, which is typically celebrated Nov. 1 and 2, families welcome back the souls of lost loved ones. They put offerings on gravesites or on altars — flowers, candles and the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased.

“In other cultures, sometimes when someone dies, they’re buried and they’re kind of forgotten,” Orozco said. “But in Día de los Muertos, every year you get to be again with your family.”

The walls surrounding the altar feature more than 100 photographs from the photographer Mary J. Andrade, who for decades has documented how people honor the dead in various parts of Mexico. The photographs showcase vigils at cemeteries in Michoacán, ritual dances that take place in Puebla and tombs decorated with marigold rosaries and large candles in San Luis Potosí.

“People can see [the photographs] and notice the differences that are from each different area,” Orozco said.

The holiday, she said, is about being with family.

“It’s a family tradition so that you can remember your family members,” she said. “And the closeness that you experience in life, you experience that once again on these days.”

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Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Marisa Charpentier