October 24, 2003

Sherman Heights Celebrates Its 9th Annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

The Sherman Heights Neighborhood Cultural Council (SHNCC) announces the return of a very special weekend. On Saturday and Sunday, November 1 & 2, 2003, from 11 a.m. through 5 p.m., the community will celebrate Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), a joyous Mexican tradition of honoring loved ones who have passed on and celebrating their memory with the creation of beautiful, festive altars. More than a dozen local families and groups will create altars inside the Community Center, located at 2258 Island Avenue in San Diego, and an even greater number of residents and local San Diego artists will create ofrenda, “offerings” or nonblessed altars, outside at local historic homes within the Sherman Heights Historic District and at the Villa Montezuma Museum. This event is free and open to the public.

“We are an ethnically diverse, thriving community, located right next to the East Village of downtown San Diego and only 10 blocks away from Petco Park, the future San Diego Padres baseball stadium,” says Louise Torio, chair of the SHNCC. “The Sherman Heights Neighborhood Cultural Council wants people to see the beauty of this community, to sample our restaurants, and to shop in our Farmers Market on Imperial Avenue before this “undiscovered” neighborhood is known to everyone when the ballpark opens next year.”

Your starting point to see the outdoor ofrenda will be the magnificent Villa Montezuma, an 1887 “Palace of Arts” built by Jesse Shepard, a musician and spiritualist. The historic house museum is located at 1925 K Street, at the corner of 20th and K, and it will have an altar dedicated to Jesse Shep-ard. Pick up a program at the Villa Montezuma so you can take a self-guided walking tour, or for a small $1 donation go on a guided tour at 1 p.m. or 3 p.m. each day. Proceeds will help fund future Sherman Heights Neighborhood Cultural Council efforts, including the Sherman Heights Snapshots book from the recent photography exhibition. Tours of the interior of the Villa Montezuma, one of the most amazing Victorian mansions to survive in California, will be available at a special discounted rate of only $2 per person. (The Villa Montezuma is owned by the City of San Diego and restored and operated by the San Diego Historical Society.)

Día de los Muertos Background

This event is not a Mexican version of Halloween, nor is it a sad, scary, or morbid event. It does not honor death; it honors the memory of those who have died. The altars are not for worshiping but for offering love and remembering beloved family members. It is a tradition that combines folk culture with Catholic tradition, and it is a careful, thoughtful, joyous time to reflect upon the cycle of life and death. In the Catholic religion, November 1 is All Saints’ Day; and Hallowe’en (Hallowed Evening) is the night before All Saints’ Day.

About 86 percent of Sherm-an Heights’ residents are of Mexican descent. Traditionally, Día de los Muertos altars are created at the gravesite. The Sherman Heights tradition started when residents asked if they might use the Community Center as a place to construct altars and bring offerings. The Community Center has provided a place for the tradition to live on so that one generation can teach the next and share this special event with the greater community.

Each area in Mexico has its own style of altar decorating. In past years, Sherman Heights’ families from the states of Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Estado de Mexico, Chiapas, Michoa-can, Morelia, and Sonora, among others, have created altars.

While Day of the Dead altars may be specific and personal to a family, the theme of remembrance is universal; all visitors will be delighted and touched by these tributes. It may even inspire visitors to understand the phrase, “Hay más tiempo que vida” (“There is more Time than Life”). Perhaps, when the time comes, our own lives will be honored in such a happy fashion.

This will be the ninth annual Sherman Heights Día de los Muertos event and the second year the Sherman Heights Neighborhood Cultural Council has sponsored the outdoor neighborhood altars. The Sherman Heights celebration is a time for feasting, dancing, telling stories, and making Day of the Dead folk art (decorating candy skulls, making masks, decorative papercutting [papel picado] for altars and doorways, baking Day of the Dead bread, creating skull necklaces and skeleton paper dangles, face painting, and more). A schedule of specific demonstration times and events will be available from the Community Center closer to the event.

Of special note: The marigold (in Spanish, cempasu-chitl) is the traditional flower of the Día de los Muertos. In July, members of the community plant over 200 marigold plants in preparation for this spirited event. The Sherman Heights-grown cempasuchitl will grace many altars, adding a local finishing touch to this traditional celebration.

An Old Neighborhood Gets a New Twist with Altars by Artists Throughout The Historic District

Sherman Heights was designated a historic district in 1987, and lately many homeowners have been restoring their historic properties so that the beauty of the Victorian, Neoclassical, and Craftsman architecture is evident. (Even the Villa Montezuma house mu-seum’s exterior was refreshed two years ago with historic paint colors.) Last year local San Diego artists participated in the Día de los Muertos event by creating outdoor altars onsite at various homes within the historic district, and the results were stunning. “Last year the framework of the traditional Día de los Muertos altars provided a guide for local artists, many of whom were not of Mexican heritage, to honor someone important in their own lives,” says Louise Torio. “This year’s Día de los Muertos celebration will have even more exciting artist-designed outdoor altars throughout the historic district, as well as more altars by local residents.”

An event program will be available from the SHNCC Welcome Booth in front of the Villa Montezuma. The program will explain the background to each altar, give details about the participating families and artists, and provide a map for a self-guided walking tour to view the altars throughout the residential area and along the Imperial Avenue business district. In addition, guided walking tours of the historic district will be held at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday to help visitors learn more about Sherman Heights, one of the oldest neighborhoods of San Diego.

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