Sugar skulls by Mexican artist Miguel Quintana. Photo by Lauren Hepler

After eight months of arranging incognito border crossings for highly in-demand Donald Trump piñatas, Nancy Charraga is enjoying a change of pace.

The last few days have been a whirlwind of sugar skulls, technicolor paper flowers and other seasonal décor sought out by clientele of her Valencia Street shop, Casa Bonampak — all ahead of celebrations for the Día de los Muertos Mexican ancestral holiday.

“This is Day of the Dead central,” Charraga says. “Tomorrow is the busiest day of the year.”

That’s true for any number of stores on 24th Street as well, including Mixcoatl, Luz de Luna, La Mejor Bakery and other shops that sell the items prized on the day.

In addition to the annual Nov. 2 festival of altars at Garfield Park and an evening procession slated to kick off at 22nd and Bryant streets at 7:00 p.m., a range of merchants, arts organizations and community groups are busy adapting a revered tradition for unusually tumultuous times. (Mission Local will be covering all of the events so return for more coverage later today.)

Casa Bonampak Owner Nancy Charraga and artisan sugar skull maker Miguel Quintana speak with a potential customer on Valencia Street.
Photo by Lauren Hepler

Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign aside, this year’s festival is set to include memorials to victims of police violence and the mass shooting of patrons at Orlando’s gay bar, the Pulse Nightclub. In the Mission, there’s also the added local context of gentrification that for some feels like cultural appropriation, but to others has become a citywide event.

The holiday combines indigenous Mexican customs and the traditions of Spanish settlers, resulting in an emphasis on the cycle of life and ongoing communication with the dead. Nov. 1 is traditionally a day of remembrance for children who have died, while Nov. 2 is a day of memorial for adults.

This year, events fusing celebration and cultural education are planned for the Mission Cultural Center, Puerto Alegre, Galería de la Raza, Back to the Picture and SOMArts, among others. Altars or commemorations are also planned for local men of color killed by law enforcement, including Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, Amilcar Perez Lopez and Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat. In addition, there will be demonstrations of solidarity with Native American protestors of the planned Dakota Access oil pipeline.

At La Mejor Bakery on 24th Street. Photo by Lydia Chávez

The festival and procession date back to the late 1970s, when local artists René Yáñez and others organized a first procession that was very small, according to a dissertation by Cary Cordova, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Austin. By the 1980s the procession and altars had become a large citywide event in which politics and art fused, Cordova writes.

Just how many people will participate in this year’s event may depend partially on a rainy weather forecast. Past festivities have attracted up to 20,000 to 30,000 people from around the Bay Area, said Mission Merchants Association Treasurer Chris Collins.

“It keeps growing,” Collins said. “Everybody seems to feel they have a connection.”

For Charraga, the event is a prime opportunity to showcase Mexican artisans she relies on year round.

On Tuesday, she hosted a sugar skull demonstration by fifth-generation artisan Miguel Quintana. Casa Bonampak will also host San Francisco dance and percussion company Fogo Na Roupa and face painters offering designs at a range of price points starting at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday.

She also expects to sell at least a few more of her $65 Trump piñatas after developing a workaround for shipments stopped at the U.S. border. Instead of sending the completed products, suppliers have found success shipping generic piñatas marked as “preachers,” which Charraga then finishes with a sticker of Trump’s face.

“To make humor out of something kind of depressing is a very Mexican concept,” she said.

The more somber roots of the Day of the Dead holiday were front and center on Tuesday afternoon at an art exhibition opening at Puerto Alegre restaurant.

A few dozen artists and onlookers gathered around a small shrine erected in front of the bar at the wood-paneled Mexican restaurant. After a Native American memorial chant and the burning of incense, attendees shared the names of parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren who have died.

Among those paying tribute were artist Ali Blum and her daughter, Cecile Robles-Blum, who each contributed pieces to the show.

Artists Calixto Robles, Ali Blum and Cecile Robles-Blum at a Puerto Alegre restaurant Day of the Dead-themed exhibition opening. Photo by Lauren Hepler

Robles-Blum, 9, produced one print featuring bones on a bright orange background, which she said was meant to reflect a more positive perspective on the afterlife.

“You can usually put skulls and very loud and vibrant colors because you’re celebrating the people,” said Blum-Robles, who said she has learned about the holiday from family in Oaxaca.

Juouany Rodriguez, who has lived in the Mission for about five years since leaving his hometown of Oaxaca, was another one of the total 32 artists included in the event.

He said his black and white woodblock print of a solitary skeleton was made to commemorate the ritual of communing with the dead at cemeteries — a sentiment he says is often lost in local celebrations.

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