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Dead in San Francisco

In the United States celebrating death is a macabre endeavor. Very seldom do we rejoice when departed souls diminish from existence and join the nether world. Dia de los Muertos, in the Mexican community, is a departure from our consternation. It celebrates death as the bedfellow of life, each sharing the yin and yang of our being. Visit Casa Bonampak and Studio 24 "en el Corazon de la Mision" (in the heart of the Mission) for Dia de los Muertos culture, education, and supplies.

On All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1st and 2nd) you'll have the opportunity to partake in this unique ritual when departed souls visit loved ones on earth. It's a time of reflection and remembrance, when family and friends share memories and tales of ancestors. What was traditionally celebrated in Mexican cemeteries and private home altars (ofrendas) will be celebrated in San Francisco's community centers and galleries. The Mission will be alive with vibrant yellow, gold, and orange marigolds (zempasuchil), scents of copal incense, decorative sugar skeletons (alfenique), and colorful paper cutouts (papel picado).

Nothing will hit home closer than creating your own ofrendas and honoring your departed ancestry. The significance of an ofrenda is to embody the personal, regional, and traditional customs that are most important to you. Start by collecting personal mementos and photos of the deceased. Next, provide an environment that welcome the spirits: favorite food and drink to provide nourishment, objects that represent their cherished pastime, and decorative candles to guide them from the spirit world.

Casa Bonampak, located on 24th Street, will provide a great selection of traditional Mexican crafts to enrich your ofrenda. Dia de los Muertos iconography is blazoned on the walls of the store. Skeletons and skulls in all shapes and sizes take the form of ceramic figurines, papier-mache statues, and wall sized portraits. Nancy Charraga, the store's manager, will gladly point out important Dia de los Muertos checklist items. Central to your ofrenda is the alfenique. Alfenique, or sugar skulls, is a traditional Mexican folk art made from meringue powder, sugar, and water. After carefully blending the paste together, they are placed in skull molds, decorated with royal icing, and labeled with names of returning souls. Alfenique can also be eaten which symbolically alters the grief associated with death into a bittersweet dessert. Pre-decorated sugar skulls range from mini to extra large and sell from $3.50 - $15.00. If you're adventurous and want to make your own, plastic sugar skull molds cost $8.99 - $11.99 and merengue powder sells for $9.99.

Walk a little further on 24th Street and you'll stumble upon Studio 24. They specialize in traditional folk art and crafts from next generation artists. All Studio 24's profits support the Chicano and Latino community gallery located next door. Store manager Maria Carreqo will help you hand pick other traditional accoutrements for your ofrenda. Papel picado, or paper cutouts, are brightly colored tissue paper that resemble the geometric snow flakes commonly made during elementary school. Instead of donning simple designs, artisans from Puebla, Mexico use awes, chisels, and specialty blades to create ornate skeletons, skulls, and religious iconography. Held together by a string, the collection of paper cutouts will flag your ancestral spirits back into your humble abode. A set of papel picado will range from $6 for a small print to $10 for a large.

To immerse yourself in the spirit of Dia de los Muertos, join San Francisco's crown procession that will occur on Sunday, November 2nd along 24th and Bryant. Over 15,000 people, from different nationalities and cultures, will unite to reaffirm life and death through music, art, food, and folk traditions.

Casa Bonampak
3331 24th Street
(Bartlett @ Osage Ally)
(415) 642-4079
Hours: Mon - Sat 11 am - 7 pm

Studio 24
2857 24th St.
(@ Bryant Street)
(415) 826-8009
Hours: Wed - Sat 12pm - 6pm