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Dia de los Muertos: 'Tree of Lives' celebrates those lost

  • Visitors at the Petaluma Arts Center check out some of the displays at the Día de Los Muertos exhibit. (SCOTT HESS)

Say the word “Halloween” and people picture ghosts, ghouls and goblins, but speak the phrase “Día de los Muertos,” and the image is completely different.

Any mention of the traditional Mexican holiday — “Day of the Dead” in English — is more likely to conjure images of smiling skeletons sitting around a table playing cards, or dancing beneath the leafy branches of a tree in a graveyard.

While the Halloween tradition is all about scary visitations from beyond the grave, Día de los Muertos is an occasion for the living to remember and celebrate loved ones who have died.

That theme is evident in this year's Día de los Muertos exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center, titled “Arbol de Vidas,” or “Tree of Lives.” It features artwork by both professional and community artists from Sonoma County and the rest of the Bay Area, said Virginia May, the center's administrative director.

Traditionally, children who have died are honored Nov. 1 and deceased adults on Nov. 2, with altar displays that are often humorous, with sugar skulls and colorfully costumed skeletons.

“This is a common experience we have as human beings, of losing loved ones and coming together to celebrate their lives and our lives,” May said. “They're still with us.”

Now in its 13th year, the center's annual Día de los Muertos celebration has grown until it lasts almost a month and includes all of Petaluma, with some 80 commemorative altars on display in storefronts scattered around town.

This year's program began on Oct. 5 and continues through Nov. 3, with a grand procession through downtown Petaluma from 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 2. Last year's candlelight procession drew about 4,000 participants and spectators.

“Every year, it gets bigger and bigger,” May said. “Partly, it's the passion of our organizers, and they're very careful to involve both Anglos and Latinos. It's very much about cross-cultural collaboration. That's the main goal of our event: to bridge the gap between cultures.”

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