Inside a meeting room at Boyle Heights LGBTQ center Mi Centro is a stunning altar made by L.A.-based artist Erick Villegas Nunes. Crosses are cut into the top of a black box that resembles a church. It opens to illustrations of skulls and melted candles. Light pours through an orange, Aztec-style wheel on its roof and red, windowlike inserts on its front and back. There's a deck of tarot cards inside and a ouija board at the base of the altar. On one side are the names of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Last year, after the horrific massacre of 49 people at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, Mi Centro remembered the fallen for Día de los Muertos. In the process, they started what looks to have become a new tradition. Calavera, named for the skull imagery associated with Día de los Muertos, is Mi Centro's now-annual event to remember lives lost due to homophobia and transphobia.
"We want to honor those individuals and we want to bring culture together in a community environment," says Ari Arambula, president of the Latino Equality Alliance's advisory board.
Located in a warehouse-heavy section of Boyle Heights, Mi Centro is a collaborative effort between Latino Equality Alliance and Los Angeles LGBT Center. The LEA, which uses education to combat homophobia in Latino communities, was formed in response to Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure intended to prevent gay marriage. Through their outreach work, the group learned that there wasn't an LGBTQ center that was accessible to people living in and around Boyle Heights. Two years ago, LEA and Los Angeles LGBT Center opened Mi Centro.
At Mi Centro, LEA works not just to provide resources for LGBTQ people but also for their families and others who could become allies as well.
Juan Castillo-Alvarado, LEA's director of public education programs, leads five weeklong workshops that help parents understand bullying, homophobia and transphobia. He says that some mothers have gone through the workshops multiple times, learning new lessons along the way. It's a way of addressing underlying issues — sexism among them — that can manifest in homophobic or transphobic attitudes. With cultural events, the group is able to continue educating the public in a festive setting.
Día de los Muertos has its roots in Mexico, but Los Angeles' celebrations can be traced back to nearby Self Help Graphics, which began hosting events in the 1970s. Over the decades, the holiday intended to honor the memories of those who have died has become extremely well-known in the United States, to the point where people have written about its popularity in the context of cultural appropriation and commercialization. At Mi Centro, though, Día de los Muertos is a time to foster understanding of the loss that has affected the LGBTQ community.
"Having a cultural celebration is learning," says Arambula. "We learn about the cultural aspect of Día de los Muertos, bringing in some of the indigenous history and trying to reel it back from the commercialism, and to bring family and bring the spiritual side of all that."
Eddie Martinez, executive director of LEA, adds, "It's a celebration of life and of your loved ones that have passed on, so when people come here and realize that we're also honoring LGBT people who unfortunately we lost to violence, it's celebrating all family members."
That includes people whose own families may not have recognized them. Castillo-Alvarado recalls news of a Pulse nightclub shooting victim whose family refused to claim his body. Says Castillo-Alvarado, "We need to honor people who are not being honored by their own families."
In mid-October, the folks at Mi Centro were gearing up for the second Calavera event. Inside the meeting room, there was a new in-progress altar. A large desk had been painted in pink and white stripes with light blue trim. Small, potted succulents, a candle and a smattering of stones lined its shelves while photos of people who have died were fixed to the backboard. Out in a hallway was an even grander unfinished altar. A large cabinet had been painted blue and yellow with same-sex couples painted on the inside top portions of the doors. Building the altars becomes as much of a community experience as the Calavera event.
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Anthony Gutierrez, an intern at Mi Centro, designed the calavera that the group uses to advertise their Día de los Muertos event. "We wanted to make ours in step with the culture but also in tune with our causes and campaign," he says. Gutierrez's piece includes a green ribbon to symbolize anti-bullying and mental health awareness, orange flowers as a statement against gun violence, LEA's logo, plus a symbol for gender fluidity and a diamond to represent strength and solidarity. The skull's makeup incorporates the rainbow colors of the LGBTQ Pride flag.
At Mi Centro, the motto is "la familia is out" and celebrating Día de los Muertos together is another way of expressing that. "Sometimes, when someone comes out, it's really risking themselves," says Castillo-Alvarado. "They're putting themselves out there, so the family needs to support them."
Mi Centro's second annual Calavera event is Saturday, Oct. 28, at 6 p.m. at 553 S. Clarence St., Boyle Heights.