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Dia de los Muertos festival celebrates diversity

By KBell
Oct. 30, 2010 at 5:30 a.m.

Ruby Ruiz, center, is reflected in the mirror that makes up part of the backdrop of James Clifton's altar named "More than Vanity," which was on display in the Nave Museum Saturday during their Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, festival. Creating alters dedicated to the dead is a major part of the Dia de los Muertos tradition.

James Clifton stood at his mother's "headquarters" - the vanity at which she paid bills, did her makeup and ran a household of five before she died at age 80.

Now in the Nave Museum for hundreds to see, Clifton had transformed the vanity into an altar at the Dia de los Muertos festival on Saturday.

"I learned a lot about her by putting this together," Clifton said of his mother, Bessie, who died five years ago.

The altar boasted black and white photos of his mother and father, Cephus, at segregated dances in the 40s and 50s. Jewelry, some of which she wore in the pictures, was displayed among her half-used Chanel No. 5 bottle and makeup powder.

On the other side of the altar were color photos of the family she raised, along with sewing and cooking supplies.

"We often think of her just in the kitchen, but she was also a glamara-rama," Clifton said.

The altar was one of 20 displayed at the festival. Clifton said when he was approached to design one in honor of a loved-one, he had to do his research on the holiday.

"At first the skulls bothered me a bit, but I thought I'd just get happy skulls," he said, pointing to the orange smiley-faced skulls that acted as a backdrop. "It was a little heavy. We always joked, and that was part of our life - having fun."

He hit a button on a singing, bobble-head Louis Armstrong statue, which was a reminder of his mother's dancing days.

"Being African American, I'm able to fuse ideas together with this wonderful Hispanic tradition," he said. "There's strength in diversity."

Sharon Steen, chairman of the exhibition committee at the museum, related to the foreign tradition, too.

She said Dia de los Muertos reminded her of going to the cemetery with her German, Lutheran grandmother, who would celebrate the lives of lost loved ones.

"It made them real to me," Steen said. "It's been the most beautiful thing for me to see all these different people come in and honor their family."

Steen said the Nave Museum had done exhibits in honor of the Day of the Dead before, but "never to this extent."

Morgen Trafton, executive director of the museum, said this was the first actual festival thrown in honor of the holiday.

Members of the Ballet Folklorico at Victoria East and West high schools performed dances with their faces painted as skulls. Spectators ate on brightly-colored tablecloths before joining in.

Kids participated in an arts and crafts station while live music played on the stage.

"This is such a gem. It's one of the greatest small towns," Trafton said, looking onto the action. "This community really supports and really craves stuff like this. I'm glad we can experience the culture here."

She said she hopes to make the Dia de los Muertos festival an annual event.



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