The origins of Dia de los Muertos can be traced back much further than modern historical archives. As many as 3,000 years ago, cultures across Central and South America honored their lost loved ones during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, a tradition that Sonoma will honor this week with a series of exhibitions and events for Day of the Dead.
Adorned with skulls, marigolds and butterflies, traditional ofrendas (altars) can be seen at the Sonoma Community Center and the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art during community displays this week. But Valley floral designer Tasha Drengson is taking the celebration to the source with an installation at Mountain Cemetery called “Bouquets to the Dead.” The cemetery’s entrance will feature a traditional La Calavera Catrina (“elegant skull”) altar, and visitors will be led by a string of marigolds through the exhibition of art that honors those buried in the cemetery.
“It came to me in a vision,” Drengson said of the display, which will feature work from a variety of Valley artists. “I’ve been a floral designer for 40 years and I’ve created thousands and thousands of funeral arrangements. I’ve always been drawn to Dia de los Muertos, and I feel extremely drawn to honoring people.”
In fact, Drengson has been remembering the deceased in Mountain Cemetery for the past three years, bringing floral arrangements to the graves to mark Dia de los Muertos. This year, she expanded that effort, getting a permit from the city to host the art installation that will be free for the community to visit. From a birds’ nest big enough for a human, to a heart-shaped display of red roses, she hopes the community will participate as well.
“I am putting it out to the whole town that everyone can come and embellish their loved one’s graves,” she said. Installation will take place Oct. 31, and will be open to the public from dawn to dusk on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 1 and 2.
Over at the Sonoma Community Center, youth groups such as the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance and WillMar Family Grief and Healing Center lent their artistic flair to this year’s event, thanks to a grant from the Plein Air Foundation. More than 150 Sonoma students made colorful, translucent butterflies, that will be displayed in the center’s gallery 212 during the fourth annual Dia de los Muertos community event on Friday, Nov. 1, beginning at 5 p.m.
“Butterflies symbolize the cycle of life, death and rebirth of the human soul for many cultures throughout the world,” said SCC Special Projects Manager Margaret Hatcher. “Monarch butterflies migrate every year to the forests of central Mexico, arriving around Nov. 1. People throughout the region see these butterflies as the returning souls of the deceased.”
Upon arrival, guests will pass by the 12-foot tall ofrenda built by Jim Callahan, which carries the photos of Sonoma’s lost loved ones. From local luminaries to average Joes, the community altar celebrates all who lived and died in Sonoma.
“We accept photos of anybody – we always put a call out to the community to participate,” said Toni Castrone, executive director of the community center. Gold butterflies will be available at the event for those who want to add a name before the towering ofrenda is lit at 7 p.m. The night will also include traditional face-painting, treats from Whole Foods and organic grape juice pressed from grapes grown at the center. There is no charge to attend.