L.A.’s Día de los Muertos Craze All Began in Boyle Heights

Artist Leo Limon's car in the procession in 1977EXPAND
Artist Leo Limon's car in the procession in 1977
Courtesy Self Help Graphics

As founder of the print shop/community center Self Help Graphics, Franciscan nun Karen Boccalero — better known as Sister Karen — is widely credited with fostering L.A.'s once-burgeoning Chicano art scene.

In Sister Karen'ts 1997 L.A. Times obit, Bolton Colburn, then director of the Laguna Art Museum, said, "She put the arts scene in East Los Angeles on the map. ... She helped to cultivate Chicano art."

It's perhaps less often that Sister Karen is credited with originating the modern Día de los Muertos celebration in L.A. Since 1973, Self Help has hosted a celebration on Día de los Muertos, a holiday that's become "oversaturated" in L.A., according to current Self Help director Betty Avila. On a walk-through of the gallery's annual Día de los Muertos exhibit, themed "Recuerdos" or memories, Avila said, "Everybody is doing it now. There's an aisle at Party City for Day of the Dead, and costumes, and I just saw a billboard with Lotto scratchers that are Day of the Dead. It's super blown up and, I think, for us, we're sort of asking ourselves how has this happened."

As part of "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA," the Getty's cross-institutional survey of Latin American and Latino art, Self Help's staff is researching the history of Día de los Muertos in L.A. and, in effect, the role the gallery played in fostering the modern phenomenon.

In a video interview from the 1990s, Sister Karen talked about the first Día de los Muertos celebration at Self Help in 1973 and how artists have always been at its core: "We just simply walked to a cemetery and had a small service there. The following year, one of the largest years we had was in 1974, and a lot of different artists were involved. I would say, 100 different artists, families, we had workshops in advance — so it was a very large celebration that started at Evergreen Cemetery and then we would parade down the street to Self Help, have a variety of activities for children, youth and the whole family. Artists were really the ones who were the major contributors to that kind of project."

Today, for the 44th year, Self Help hosts its annual celebration, which features Latina punk icon Alice Bag, Latina record collective Chulita Vinyl Club, as well as a traditional blessing, vendors and kids activities. To accommodate bigger crowds, it's being held across the street from Self Help at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School. This year, like every other, the gallery led up to the big day by hosting a month's worth of community workshops in which kids created papier-mâché skulls and other crafts. The back of the gallery is filled with esqueletos from this year and years past. There's a punk with a mohawk and his tongue sticking out, a little Aztec dancer in a headdress and an elegant lady skeleton with hot-pink lips and flowers for eyes. They'll be part of this year's procession and they'll inform next year's "PST" exhibit.

Papier mache skeletons inside Self Help GraphicsEXPAND
Papier mache skeletons inside Self Help Graphics
Gwynedd Stuart

In the leadup to the exhibit, Self Help has been sending researchers to study its archive, which lives at UC Santa Barbara. Avila says, "I think, for us, we're sort of exploring what is different about how we do this from every other celebration. The indigenous roots are important, but I think also the educational components. That, for us, I think that's what sets us apart. I think [next year's exhibit] is about helping people understand that the way people celebrate Day of the Dead now literally came out of the way that Self Help Graphics has evolved it. And what's crazier is to think about the fact that there was sort of research that had to be done in the ’70s to bring Day of the Dead here."

Avila says that in the early ’70s, Sister Karen sent local artists to Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico to study how Día de los Muertos was celebrated and import those traditions. Now, they're discovering how America's Day of the Dead celebrations — not to mention the commodification of the holiday — have influenced what takes place in Mexico. They've discovered that even the style of face painting has changed over the years, evolving from simple skeleton faces to the lacy, intricate designs you see today.

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Avila says, "I think, for us, this is a very important moment to not say we own Día de los Muertos ... but more to help ground the city in the roots and also to help folks really understand the importance of that history. It's a way for us to say, "Don't brush this off. This history is important."

Annual Día de los Muertos Celebration, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School, 1200 Plaza del Sol, Boyle Heights; Wed., Nov. 2, 5 p.m.; free. selfhelpgraphics.com.


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