Many Mexican-Americans growing up during the 1950s and ’60s had no awareness of Día de los Muertos. Due to the pressures of assimilation, relatively few Chicano families celebrated this ancient tradition, which combines elements of Christian and indigenous rituals. A new exhibit at the
Oakland Museum of California, , celebrates the resurrection of this holiday in the Fruitvale district and throughout California. ¡El Movimiento Vivo! Chicano Roots of El Día de los Muertos
As the Museum celebrates the 25th anniversary of its Día de los Muertos ceremonies
, this episode explores connections between the rise of the Chicano Power movement and surging interest in Day of the Dead. Listen now to hear Fruitvale History Project co-founder Annette Oropeza and Latino mental health pioneer Roberto Vargas share memories of how they came to embrace Día de los Muertos, their concerns about its growing mainstream recognition, and much more.
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Roberto Vargas and his brother Jack with familia, 1977. (L to R: Marcos, Andrea, Roberto, Jack, papa Everett, Mama Tita, Arturo Vargas) Before Jack passed away from AIDS in 1995, Roberto assured him that his memory would always be honored through their family’s Día de los Muertos tradition.
When Roberto Vargas co-founded El Centro Salud Mental about 50 years ago, it was one of the first mental health clinics focused on serving a Latino population in the United States. (Poster illustration: Malaquias Montoya)
Roberto Vargas helped lead the Oakland Museum’s first Día de los Muertos ceremony. As part of this year’s 25th anniversary celebration, he encouraged attendees to share the names of departed loved ones they wanted to remember. (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)
An altar at the center of Oakland Museum’s courtyard. According to Roberto Vargas, Día de los Muertos “is a time to recognize our connection to all of life. Mother earth and all the spirits. It’s a time to open the window to the spirit side, so they’re looking down and smiling on us.” (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)
“Artist Manuel Hernandez Trujillo created this poster for a Chicano Liberation Conference at Merritt College. The Chicano Student Union planned this event as a follow-up to the national conference in Denver so activists in Oakland could tailor the national goals to local needs.” [Image: All of Us or None Archive, Gift of the Rossman Family. Caption: OMCA, ¡El Movimiento Vivo! Chicano Roots of El Día de los Muertos ]
Annette Oropeza and Roberto Vargas were both drawn from Southern California to Oakland during the early 1970s. The Fruitvale district was an activist hub of the Chicano Power movement.
This map produced by Comité del Barrio shows the density of social justice-oriented clinics, schools, and organizations in Fruitvale circa 1978.
Barlow Benavidez was a 27-year -old Chicano resident of Oakland who was shot and killed by Oakland Police Officer Michael Cogley on June 11, 1976. “ Cogley had his shotgun to Jose’s head while he was searching him, and it went off, point blank, killing Benavidez instantly.” This murder sparked a series of protests against police brutality. Benavidez is commemorated on the Fruitvale History Project’s altar at the Oakland Museum this year.
Remembering Fruitvale during the 1970s and 80s, Annette Oropeza said: “The people in the community were very intertwined. You could walk down Fruitvale Ave. and go here for services and there and then go to your job and then get some pan dulce and then go to a meeting. That was the atmosphere. Everybody knew everybody.”
“This Cholo was first displayed at OMCA in 1984. In the early 1990s, he was met with strong reactions from The Amigos Group of the City of Oakland (a Latino advocacy group), who felt he represented a damaging caricature of Latino culture. In response, Tom Frye, former chief curator of history, organized a series of conversations with community members, museum staff and the artist — Richard Rios. The museum decided to remove the Cholo until more context could be included. Community members involved in these discussions formed the OMCA Latino Advisory Committee, which championed the first Día de los Muertos celebration here.” (Caption: OMCA, ¡El Movimiento Vivo! Chicano Roots of El Día de los Muertos)
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