Of course, the most touching tributes will be paid at thousands of gravesites around the city, as families gather with wreath, ribbon, and picnic basket to commune with the dead, drawing together at the physical resting places of family and friends to celebrate the memory of people who meant so much to them — in life and in death.
But if you have the time, and the inclination, opportunities abound for the extant to venture forth and honor the icons of our collective passed.
As usual, the Institute of Texan Cultures comes out strong with an exhibit of altars in its lower gallery. ITC staffer Willie Mendez' many-faceted memorial to Bongo Joe represents the most extensive display this perennial genre has seen in some time. A haphazardly arranged panoply of obscure pieces, the altar is an homage to an enduring figure of our city's street pantheon. Bongo Joe — a.k.a. George Coleman — was indelibly beaten into San Antonio history over 20 years, as he pounded his drums through the downtown streets, and here he is given his overdue. Though the impressive collection — which includes his last set of 55-gallon drums, his modified scooter/boombox, an array of his favorite pipes, and a list (in his own handwriting) of the names of his 30-plus dogs — could never present a complete picture of his remarkable life, it goes a long way toward documenting his impact. A full wall is tacked with "Get Well" cards, sent by fans around the world, which arrived at Bongo Joe's deathbed a day too late. It is there I met a friend of his, Helen Glau, who pointed to a laminated story by the Austin Chronicle, dated 1991. In it, a tearful and heartfelt eulogy is given for Bongo Joe — eight years too early. The Current's Lifetime Achievement Award (presented shortly after the article was published) stands nearby in sideways response to the journalistic gaffe.
Elsewhere in the hall, along two rows of tables, sit countless shoebox altars created by schoolchildren from Gus Garcia Middle School. The small ofrendas are touching in their pure love and the simple innocence they exude. Altars to friends and family — and in the case of children too young or fortunate to be touched by a nearby death, to celebrities — are huddled together: abuela next to primos next to parents next to Selena. The randomness of death, as this exhibit tenderly reveals, will inevitably touch us all.
Yet when the dead walk with us, we are enriched by their presence. Need proof? Witness this truth of the afterlife en masse at the 2nd Annual Westside Día de los Muertos Barrio Procession and Community Altar. The November 1st march zig-zags through five stops around the community, and in true Día fashion lends a festive feel to the occasion: Poetry, blessings, face-painting, street theater, live music, and personal offerings highlight the evening. The procession will culminate at the community altar on Guadalupe Street (between Nueces and Sabinas), with a live conjunto band and food stalls. After all, one can't live on pan de muerto alone.
On the near West Side, Galeria Ortiz displays a Frida Kahlo altar by San Antonio-born artist Pearla Sanchez. While the display (a series of colorful chairs symbolizing the tragic and phenomenal stages of the icon's life) is original, the subject is not. Ho-hum, but for the inclusion of a series of dark works by Courtney Reid, whose thickly-textured portraits of life at its blurred edges makes for stunning imagery and powerful but mysterious emotions.
More Reid canvases hang at Red House, in a show entitled Death in the House of Love. Sharing the space are works by George Yepes, J. Salvador Lopez, and Ed Saavedra, whose ironic humor has spread beyond the room to another exhibit; titled The Show That Wouldn't Die, it is both a collective take on the Mexican ritual and a verbal jab at the cultural gatekeepers who killed the show in its earlier versions. With works by Saavedra, Luis Vega Treviño, Ruben Luna, Cruz Ortiz, Ben Mata, and the line art of Maurice and Liz Treviño, the show is a powerhouse of funky art from the soft, white underbelly of San Antonio's anti-hip contingent. References include Boston album covers, taco stand calendar art, winged bicycles, and Bill Hicks. Anyone familiar with Hicks' work remembers the comedian's uproarious collations of political and theological commentary — with piquant humor that pulled no punches. His death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 touched many, and Hicks' memory is survived here by Saavedra's multi-media shrine to his legacy. A highly-stylized blue portrait of Hicks is simply ringed by marigolds, while a looped portion of Hicks on-stage antics and ramblings runs in the background. "Life is just a ride," chants Hicks at one point. "We get on ... and we get off."
Prescient words, and sage ones, too, for anyone who has had to stare down the ravages of war. At the 1900 Broadway Gallery, veterans — and veteran writers — pay tribute to their own at Dia de los Muertos: Lagrimas, Guerra, y Viet Nam (Tears, War, and Viet Nam). Visitors may search for meaning among the memories of veterans who fought and died in the Viet Nam war, and the works of those more fortunate souls who survived, but were nonetheless affected by our nation's time "in-country." Paintings by Juan Farias, Roberto Sifuentes, and Rudy Davila will be on display, and readings by Chicano authors Michael Rodriguez, Norma Cantu, and poets Diana Montejano, Eduardo Garza, and Beverly Sanchez Padilla underline the stories of injustice before, during, and in the aftermath of the war. Farias' paintings, so familiar to anyone who has ventured out of the bars on First Friday, are vivid, abstract things, from an artist in deep communion with his medium and his memory. As a Viet Nam vet, he is rarely given to public meditation on his time served, but on the occasion of a recent visit to his new studio and the space at the corner of Grayson and Broadway, he said of the show's weighty subject: "It's like being in an auto accident: The memory and pain never go away." True to his word, a short, heart-filled anecdote ended with the sad, but all-too familiar, words: "He died in my arms..."
When we lose touch with the dead, forgetting the contributions they made in our lives, their deaths become final. But by honoring their memory (either quietly, at home, or through loud, public, surrealistic rituals), we invite them to rise up and live among us — if only for one day and night a year.
El DÍa de los Muertos
Institute of Texan Cultures
801 S. Bowie,
Learn the importance and tradition of Day of the Dead through altars, a video program, and interpretations by ITC docents. The main altar is dedicated to George Coleman, or "Bongo Joe," who played nightly on the River Walk for more than 20 years. Through Nov 10. $5, $3 seniors & military, $2 children age 3-12. 2nd Annual West Side Día de los Muertos Barrio Procession and Community Altar The march begins at the corner of San Patricio and Trinity at 6pm on Nov 1, and will move to a variety of landmarks around the neighborhood. Participants are encouraged to bring floral and food offerings for the dead. Info: 226-7466
Frida: La Vida and Portals
102 Concho, Market Square, 225-0731 With works by Pearla Sanchez and Courtney Reid. Through Nov 13. 10am-6pm Thursdays-Fridays, 11am-6pm Saturdays, 11am-5pm Sundays, noon-5pm Mondays. Free.
Death in the House of Love and The Show that Wouldn't Die
Red House @ Blue Star
111 Blue Star, 224-8118
A contemporary take on Day of the Dead featuring work by Ruben Luna, Cruz Ortiz, Ed Saavedra, Luis Vega Trevino, and Maurice and Liz Trevino. Death in the House of Love also on exhibit features works by George Yepes, Courtney Reid, Sal Lopez, and Saavedra. Oct 31 opening reception Monster Mash Bash with a costume ball, video mixing and projection by Kid Kotex, and music by Dj Jester and others. 7-10pm. First Friday reception Nov 1 at 9pm. 7-10pm reception, 10:30pm-4am Monster Mash Bash Oct 31. Free.
Día de los Muertos: Lagrimas, Guerra, y Viet Nam (Tears, War, and Viet Nam)
The 1900 Broadway Gallery
War-inspired works of art, poetry, and prose by Roberto Sifuentes, Juan Farias, Rudy Davila, Michael Rodriguez, Norma Cantu, Diana Montejano, Eduardo Garza, and Beverly Sanchez Padilla. The opening night will be filmed for an inclusion in a documentary about Chicano experiences and perceptions of the Vietnam War.