Self Help Graphics Celebrates Dia de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School | Photo courtesy of Self Help Graphics & Art

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, has gained popularity across the U.S. in recent years, particularly in Los Angeles. In Mexico, the tradition originated with Mesoamerican practices. In Los Angeles,the history of Dia de los Muertos as a public gathering goes back to the 1970s, when it emerged from an art studio called Self Help Graphics & Art, where art, heritage and community activism converged in the midst of the Chicano Movement for civil rights.

Founded in 1970 by Sister Karen Boccalero, Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez and Frank Hernández, Self Help Graphics celebrated and encouraged the art of the Chicano Movement that was happening in L.A.'s Eastside communities at that time. Their first Day of the Dead celebration happened early in the studio's history simply because it was a holiday that other organizations weren't celebrating.

"The first event was very small. It was the artists who were affiliated with the organization, the studio," says Karen Mary Davalos, Chair of the Board of Directors for Self Help Graphics and a professor in the Chicano Studies Department at University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Those early gatherings remained fairly low-key. They would involve a communal dinner with an ofrenda - "an offering for the dead," she explains - and a procession to nearby Evergreen Cemetery. "At one point, we had the Catholic church working with us and would say mass," she says. "In addition to that kind of spirituality, there was indigenous expression as well."

Interest in Dia de los Muertos increased, and by the 1980s the events could include food, performances, and altars made by artists and community members. "From the very beginning, what we were doing differently from anybody else was joining the spiritual with arts and politics," says Davalos. "The other thing that we do differently compared to Mexico is it's a public, communal celebration." She explains that, traditionally, Dia de los Muertos consisted of family gatherings in Mexico, rather than large community ones. "What we did was change the format. Self Help Graphics transformed the format for celebrating Day of the Dead in the 1970s by making it a public, communal event and by making it infused with politics and spirituality."

Property of Discover Los Angeles
Alfredo de Batuc, "Día de los Muertos," 1979. Copyright: Self Help Graphics & Art, Alfredo de Batuc. | Photo courtesy of PST: LA/LA

This year, Dia de los Muertos at Self Help Graphics is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, where cultural institutions across Southern California explore the connections between Latin America and Los Angeles. This includes an exhibition documenting the history of Self Help Graphic's Dia de los Muertos celebrations inside their Boyle Heights studio, as well as workshops leading up to the 44th annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at Mendez Learning Center on Nov. 4.

At Self Help Graphics, art is part of Dia de Los Muertos - since 1983, they've issued official commemorative prints. Inside the exhibition you'll see past prints, some of which are quite elaborate. In 2013, Daniel Gonzalez made a print designed to look like the paper-cutting art known as papel picado. Last year, Shizu Saldamando's print was a portrait of L.A. punk icon Alice Bag made to look as if it were drawn in pen on a handkerchief. There are other artworks incorporated into the exhibition, as well as photos from past events.

Located by the entrance of the studio's gallery is a large altar and ofrenda dedicated to Self Help Graphic's late founder, Sister Karen Boccalero. It was made by master altarista Ofelia Esparza, who has made altars for the studio since 1980 and has crafted many in honor of Sister Karen since her passing in 1997.

"She was a Catholic nun, but she was a nun like none you had ever met before," says Esparza of Sister Karen, by phone. "She was a chain smoker. She was tough. She was compassionate. She loved our community, our Chicano community, and she was an artist herself." All of that is reflected in the altar. There's an ashtray with cigarettes in it. Multiple artists who knew Sister Karen contributed decorative tiles that were fired inside the studio.

In addition to tradition, the flowers recall Sister Karen's own love of gardens. "One of respites, one of her relaxing things, was her garden at her house," says Esparza. "She lived in East L.A. and towards the end of her life, her house was open for artists to paint in her garden and she really enjoyed her garden."

Esparza learned how to make altars from her own mother. When Esparza was growing up in East Los Angeles, she would head to a local cemetery with her mom, aunt and cousins where they would eat lunch and her mom and aunt would decorate graves with flowers. "The most important thing for me though was the stories, especially my great-grandmother - I almost knew her intimately from these stories," says Esparza. "That's what has stayed with me, the tradition of passing on the oral tradition of the ancestors and, of course, remembering them."

Today, as an artist and educator, she passes on the tradition. "The most important thing is that the purpose of doing an altar is to remember a loved one, our loved ones or our ancestors, to remember them and if they didn't meet them, find out who they were," she says.

As Dia de los Muertos becomes more well known in the U.S., there are persistent misconceptions about the holiday, which takes place on November 1 and 2. Both Davalos and Esparza note that there are people who think that Dia de los Muertos is like Halloween. That's not the case. It's a day of remembering the lives of those who are gone. "Day of the Dead is a wonderful tradition that brings families together and it bridges generations. It bridges countries," says Esparza. "It bridges cultures today, especially now that it is becoming so well known." Davalos says, "Like all cultures around the world, we pay homage to our dead. We just do it in a festive way."

Davalos also points out that, while Dia de los Muertos has a deep history and is rooted in traditions, it's not necessarily a traditional event. "I call it innovation through tradition," she says. "That's the beauty of Self Help Graphic's Day of the Dead celebrations - they're grounded historically and spiritually to the indigenous past and the indigenous present, but also paying very much attention to what's going on here right now."

For more information about the 44th annual Dia de los Muertos celebration, visit the Self Help Graphics website.

Self Help Graphics & Art
1300 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90033
(323) 881-6444