Celebrating Latino/Latina Veterans with Dia de los Muertos Altars

Celebrating Latino/Latina Veterans with Dia de los Muertos Altars

The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center is a hub of Mexican American culture for Austinites located near the historical Rainey Street district and just off the Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail at 600 River Street. The large white concrete structure sits on a six and a half acre site and features two art galleries, classroom space, performance space, and a beautiful outdoor plaza. It is a treasure of our city and a destination since 2007.

When the idea for the Austin Veteran Arts Festival was conceived in 2017 with plans for a month long festival in Fall 2019, the City of Austin cultural facilities were the first venue to join and were happy to participate. The MACC invited us to do a special exhibition featuring Dia de los Muertos altars for Latino and Latina Veterans in the Community Gallery.

This week I have been overseeing the installation of the altars. Creating altars for deceased loved ones is a long-standing cultural tradition in Mexico, but it is new to me. I have been learning a lot, and even got inspired to create an altar with my boyfriend Ramon, who’s father Ray Gonzalez was a WWII Veteran. We pulled out old photographs and articles and read up on his father’s time in the service. It was an amazing and heartbreaking journey that he went through serving in the Army 82nd Airborne Division C Company 505. He was knighted by the Queen of Holland, received the Purple Heart, and the Silver and Bronze Star. Ramon says he never talked about his time in the service because it was such a hard thing to relive, even in telling. We pulled together these photos and stories to display on his altar along with books and play scripts because he loved to read and was an actor. I drew a Toltec warrior to display in the background to honor his heritage.

Installing the altar was exciting and a bit intimidating. This being my first altar, I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right. It looks a little scrawny next to some of the others. But the atmosphere in the gallery during the building is one of love and support. Mary Louise Aguirre has been building altars at the MACC every year since 2008.

She was excited to honor her family members who are veterans and showed me photos of several of her cousins and uncles. She gave me advice on my altar and shared supplies with me as well as with Monica Velez. Monica is no newcomer to altars. She has one in her home. Now she gets a chance to share it in public to honor her brothers, both who died during their time in the military. She is also adding her father to the altar because he died of grief after losing his sons, and she says she always keeps them together.

Although it sounds like a sad event, Dia de los Muertos is about remembering the happy times and the lives of those who are no longer with us. The altars brought them all into the room with us as we talked and laughed and shared stories. We invite you to the opening reception this Friday, October 18th from 6-8 pm at the MACC Community Gallery to remember these veterans with us. There will be food, live music, and celebration of life.

April Sullivan, Artworks Director

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