Oakland-based artist Rachel-Anne Palacios has spent much of her artistic career creating Día de los Muertos inspired pieces and jewelry. She has been both lead artist and sat on the committee at the Oakland Museum for their annual Día De Los Muertos exhibits. So we thought, “Who better to design our own in-store altar?” Following the initial set-up of the altar, we asked Rachel about growing up in Oakland and the inspirations for her work.
What was your childhood like growing up in Oakland? Who/What inspired you to begin to create your art?
I grew up in the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland, right near San Antonio park-where the Malcom X Festival is held. My childhood was filled with experiences of having multicultural friends in my neighborhood — South East Asian, Arab and Hindi, Latino and African-American.
Visiting neighbors from these different cultures is what got me inspired to do multicultural art. I was always fascinated by the different ofrendas or altars in people’s homes. Asian shrines with the red altars, incense and oranges, Hindu altars with Ganesh, Latino ofrendas for days of the dead always seemed to get my attention as a little kid. It’s ironic that I am so involved with them now.
What’s the personal significance of Dia De Los Muertos for you. How has the holiday woven its way through your life?
Well, Día de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday that celebrates life and pokes fun at death. I love the colorful festivities and rituals that go along with the holiday. I really started getting into it when a really good friend was killed at a party that we were attending in 1992.
I was about a month away from graduating and had just gone to the prom with him the weekend before, and by the next Saturday, he was gone. Shot in a case of mistaken identity. It was extremely tragic and I needed something to focus on and help me heal from that experience.
My grandmother would come with me to his grave every year to put flowers, incense, candles and other things that he liked until her death in 2005. I have kept the tradition going with her guidance.
Over the past 10 years I have worked with different community, youth and school groups on creating altars for Día de los Muertos. Some of those installations have been shown at the Oakland Museum of California, the mission cultural center in San Francisco and at the Ofrendas Para los Muertos exhibit that I curated at the State of California Building in 2009.
How did you get involved with the Oakland Museum? Had you built public ofrendas before teaming up with the museum?
I attended a taller (workshop) for emerging artists in 2003, and I guess they were impressed by what I had been doing with my art, so they hired me on to help out with their Dia de los Muertos exhibit. I had started building public ofrendas at the Fruitvale Festival for Dia de los Muertos in 2001 and in other organizations, but it was such an honor to be able to actually display my work for the public to see for a couple of months.
What does it mean to you to be “Oaklandish?” Who embodies the Oaklandish spirit to you?
Being Oaklandish to me is being able to use the word “hella,” knowing about the old skool stuff that people used to do back in the day — such as going to the roller skating rink at the strip mall in East Oakand, having an Orange Julius at the M/B (Macarthur Broadway Mall), seeing Too $hort around town, going to the A’s game with your parents, hanging out at Fairlyland, chillin’ at Lake Merritt amongst other things that I will save for another day…and LOVING the fact that I can rock my Oaklandish tees at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun at the Teotihuacan ruins in Mexico.
Describe the ofrenda in the Oaklandish store. What are some of the unique pieces to the alter and what do they signify?
The Oaklandish ofrenda is dedicated to some of the famous Oakland trailblazers that made a name for themselves here. We have a well-rounded presentation of folks who represent different ideas, occupations and political status.
I felt that I needed to include ancestors of different ages and backgrounds, because that is what Oakland is about. It IS one of the most multicultural cities around.
Some of the unique pieces are items that I have collected in Mexico while traveling there during the time of Día de los Muertos, some are projects that I have worked on with the community and other things are just simply the traditional items that you would put on an ofrenda.
Everyone that comes into the store is invited to write the name of a loved one who has passed and put it on the wall or even write a message to someone that they miss who is no longer here. When the altar comes down, I will have a special private ceremony where I will burn the names and notes to send them to Mictlan- the place of the dead in Aztec culture.
Bring in your own offering to the deceased to our Downtown Store (1444 Broadway) until November 7th.