Day of the Dead 3028

Holidays for the Living … and the Dead

(Updated 10/​4/​12) Many of us are looking in panic at the calendar and realizing that, as September ends, the holiday season threatens. Ack.

Artist Luis Villanueva putting together an installation at Skylight Books. Often, they come together organically. Others are meticulously planned (Photo by Tessie Borden)

There’s one holiday that is somewhat new to the Autry, though it is a long and hallowed tradition in Los Angeles (especially points East), and stretches back centuries in Mexico: El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

To be sure, the Autry hosted a small celebration during the 1990s. But when organizers decided that, yes, the museum would properly honor the day in which many Mexicans and Mexican Americans remember their departed relatives by cleaning graves, building altars and strewing homes with petals from the marigold known as cempasúchil, they knew they needed the help of experts.

They turned to Luis Villanueva, a Mexican-​born artist who specializes in altars, and to Robert Ramirez, who with Villanueva previously organized Day of the Dead celebrations at Hollywood Forever cemetery. ¡Vivan Los Muertos! has been a major Autry celebration now for three years. We wrote about Villanueva in August 2010. The two have been working feverishly through the summer, contacting performers and artists and planning logistics.

Villanueva’s completed Catrina installation at Skylight Books (Photo by Tessie Borden)

In 2010, Villanueva put one of his installations in the display window at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, which periodically lets community groups use it to highlight their work. The installation will be up for two weeks.

Villanueva, who is passionate about recycling and environmental conservation, gets his point across by constructing beautiful objects out of what other people might throw away. He has made sculptures of many of Mexico’s most venerated representations of the Virgin Mary, and some of those were on display at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, on Temple Street in Downtown, as part of Celebremos! a small 2010 exhibition focusing on the Mexican Independence Bicentennial and Revolution Centennial.

Villanueva’s sculpture of La Virgen de los Remedios, part of an exhibition at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, catches a visitor’s eye (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Other works by the artist, this time depicting that other-​worldly icon of death known in Mexico as La Catrina, also were on display at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona in 2010.

For the Autry’s Day of the Dead celebration, Villanueva and Ramirez plan a whole raft of entertainment, with Catrina displays, sugar skulls and face painting, folkloric and indigenous dance performances, and a multi-​media concert by the Chicano alt-​rock band Quetzal.

Among the performers is Xocoyote, an indigenous dance group that for ten years has performed in different iterations across Los Angeles, including the plaza at Olvera Street. The name is Nahuatl for “the last son.”

Jaime Calvillo, the Guadalajara-​born leader of the group that comprises his large family as well as students of all ages, took time out Saturday afternoon during a performance to talk about why he dances.

“It’s brought me a lot of peace, spiritually, physically and in my personal life,” he said in Spanish.

A Xocoyote dancer performing at the plaza on Olvera Street (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“It’s something that’s very rich, and the more we show it to the public, the more energy we receive.”

Calvillo, 49, got involved with indigenous dancing — first as a manager and later as a performer — as a way to connect with the culture with which he grew up, and he continued because it helped his four children and two grandchildren, all born in the United States, do the same.

“As happens in many families, my children didn’t speak Spanish,” he said. “Not until the two oldest were more than 10 years old did they start wanting to learn Spanish. At that time, I was already involved in the dance. So they got very curious and took a lot of pride in it. Every free day, every free moment, they wanted to learn more. As a father, I was very proud that they wanted to follow my tradition.”

Calvillo said children growing up in the United States face a lot of competition for their extracurricular time. So for him it was particularly rewarding that his children should become interested in indigenous dancing.

Then, of course, there was the time in 2008 that the group was invited to perform at the Staples Center during a WNBA L.A. Sparks game.

Xocoyote in action (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“It was very strange how it happened,” Calvillo said. “They talked to me like they knew me…. At first I thought it was a joke.”

The group performed outside, in front of the arena, and also just before the game started. They were asked to return in 2009. Calvillo thought they would again dance outside, but at the last minute, the promoter asked them to perform for halftime.

“We really worked it that night; we were really flying free,” he said. “We’ve had a chance to perform in places that we never thought we would go.”

Calvillo said indigenous dancing got its start in Los Angeles with one group in the 1970s. And, even though there is no way to know for sure whether their dances look anything like what indigenous people might have performed 400 years ago, he has consulted books that talk about dance traditions, and more importantly, he seeks out elders on his yearly trips to Mexico to perform at ceremonies in pre-​Columbian centers to glean what might have been passed down through the generations.

“I try to find out what I can through the elders, which we call the grandfathers in dance circles,” he said. “It’s very useful for me to ask them because they have lived it, through their parents and grandparents. That’s more certain than going to the books…. For me it’s more adequate to hear the knowledge that comes from people through the generations.”

Xocoyote will dance twice at the Autry Day of the Dead celebration. They will bless the proceedings at the beginning of the afternoon, and then they will lead a procession that goes through the museum, blesses all the altars, and ends with a performance in the plaza.

“This is really growing a lot,” Calvillo said. “There are (indigenous dance) groups have traveled outside of the United States; they’ve gone to Europe. For me, that is a dream that is not very far away.”

Here’s Xocoyote performing at the Staples Center:


This article is filed under:

Autry Events · Behind-the-Scenes · Conversations

About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.