Community altar commemorates Day of the Dead

  • Iohann Vega plays the classic Violeta Parra song “Gracias a la vida” on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in front of a Día de Muertos ofrenda, or altar, where community members can welcome back the souls of their loved ones for the holiday. The ofrenda was organized by Vega, Attack Bear Press and others. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Attack Bear Press co-founder Alex Woolner talks about part of a community ofrenda, or altar, that the press and others in the community organized for Día de Muertos. Each of the roughly 14,000 cards hanging from the ceiling represents 15 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Iohann Vega left photos of his father and brother, Mario Vega and Vishnu Vega, along with other photos left by community members on the Día de Muertos ofrenda in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Right, Attack Bear Press co-founder Alex Woolner talks about part of a community ofrenda, or altar, with Ben Culver,12, and his mother Heather Culver that Attack Bear Press and others in the community organized for Día de Muertos. Each of the roughly 14,000 cards hanging from the ceiling represents 15 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States. Ben Culver is studying the Day of the Dead in Spanish class and came to learn about the holiday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Attack Bear Press co-founder Alex Woolner talks about part of a community ofrenda, or altar, that Attack Bear Press and others in the community organized for Día de Muertos. Each of the roughly 14,000 cards hanging from the ceiling represents 15 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Iohann Vega plays the classic Violeta Parra song "Gracias a la vida" on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in front of a Día de Muertos ofrenda, or altar, where community members can welcome back the souls of their loved ones for the holiday. The ofrenda was organized by Vega, Attack Bear Press and others. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Attack Bear Press co-founder Alex Woolner talks about part of a community ofrenda, or altar, with Ben Culver, 12, and his mother Heather Culver that Attack Bear Press and others in the community organized for Día de Muertos. Each of the roughly 14,000 cards hanging from the ceiling represents 15 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States. Ben Culver is studying the Day of the Dead in Spanish class and came to learn about the holiday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jason Montgomery, co-founder of Attack Bear Press, stands beside a community ofrenda, or altar, meant to honor the more than 215,000 people who have now died of COVID-19 in the United States. He and others in the community organized the ofrenda for Día de Muertos. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/2/2020 8:42:58 PM

HOLYOKE — As dead leaves blew through the alley behind the Baustein Building on Monday, the soft sound of a flute floated over the autumnal noises, a melody instantly recognizable to many worldwide: “Gracias a la vida” by the Chilean artist Violeta Parra.

It was a song that Iohann Vega played almost a year ago at a Mexico City funeral home after his father, Mario, died. On Monday, Vega played the tune again as he stood before photos of his dad and brother Vishnu, who died in April of that year. The photos were some of many that formed an ofrenda, or altar, where community members could welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones for the holiday Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

“It’s such an important and meaningful opportunity to be able to celebrate one of the most relevant dates in my culture and background,” said Vega, who is the director of media engagement at Holyoke Media and runs the media platform Radioplasma. “And to be able to share t his with everybody else.”

The altar was one piece of a two-part community ofrenda put together for a second year by Vega, Attack Bear Press, Holyoke’s Neftalí Durán and others in the community. The event was first organized last year, in part to combat the commercialization and cultural appropriation of Día de Muertos, which takes place on Nov. 1 and 2. However, as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 climbs over 215,000, organizers wanted to create a space that also remembered that harsh reality.

A second part of the ofrenda was located upstairs in a room donated by Readywipe Gallery, where around 14,000 cards hung from the ceiling, each meant to represent 15 people who had died of coronavirus in the United States. Imprinted with pictures of a skull, the hanging cards formed a stunning visual of the magnitude of death from the pandemic this year.

“We still wanted to maintain this cultural expression and be able to demonstrate the spiritual, religious and political parts of crafting an event around Día de los Muertos,” said Jason Montgomery, co-founder of Attack Bear Press and lead artist behind the project. “We also wanted to give the community a space to come together to heal, to mourn, to remember.”

Because of the pandemic, safely expanding the ofrenda this year involved some creative ideas, including a partnership with Wistariahurst Museum, which used a projector to create a drive-through viewing of the experience. People also submitted photos to include in this year’s ofrenda, with some 200 people sending pictures of loved ones from across the region and beyond, Montgomery said.

The New England Foundation for the Arts helped by providing a $10,000 “Public Art for Spatial Justice” grant. And the artistic placemaking project El Corazón/The Heart of Holyoke pitched in financial support too, Montgomery said.

For Vega, the ofrenda is an opportunity to educate people about the Día de Muertos holiday. He said that often, the celebration gets co-opted by those celebrating Halloween. People dress as calaveras, or sugar skulls — the colorful decorations synonymous with the holiday — without understanding the meaning and cultural practices behind the holiday.

“We have an opportunity for people to see it, enjoy it and to see what it means without excluding them,” he said. “When we can share and enjoy it together, it makes us a richer community.”

The organizers also wanted to make a statement about the deadly realities of COVID-19. Upstairs in the Readywipe Gallery, the cumulative total of the country’s coronavirus deaths surrounds those who visit the exhibit. Inside the hanging cards sit 15 skulls, in order to make the 15 lives that each card represents a little more real.

Alex Woolner, a co-founder of Attack Bear Press, was showing the exhibit to visitors on Monday afternoon. Woolner noted that in the era of COVID-19, people have been unable to mourn those who have died, with virtual memorials often replacing in-person grieving during the pandemic. They said the ofrenda space offers a place to reflect on those who have passed away.

“I hope it can be a space for those who can come remember someone and say goodbye to them as well,” Woolner said.

One of those to visit the ofrenda on Monday was Anne Talley, who left the gallery room with as much of a look of awe as one can have with a face mask on.

“It was just amazing to see how many there are,” Talley said. “Of people who have died,” Talley’s 8-year-old daughter, Josephine, chimed in.

Día de Muertos is a holiday with Indigenous roots that is celebrated across the Americas, and has become a national symbol in Mexico. Montgomery, who himself is Chicano and Indigenous, said that for Chicanos in particular the holiday has always been political. And ahead of a contentious election on Tuesday, he said the organizers wanted to make a political statement with the project.

“We wanted to make tangible the realities of this pandemic and its mismanagement and mishandling,” Montgomery said. “When we talk about 200,000 plus people dead, it’s easy to lose what that actually means. And when you are voting, I would hope that everyone who has a chance to see this work or has a chance to witness it really remembers how we got here and really puts that into action.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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