Mirthala Álvarez with her dressed-up calaca.

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Photos by Antonio Mejias-Rentas
Rosa Cervantes believes it’s a good thing to remember those who have departed.

“Many people don’t like to speak about those who have died,” Cervantes says, while putting the finishing touches on a miniature framed altar, dedicated to her late father and father-in-law. “I do.”

Cervantes is part of a group of Ramona Gardens seniors who were busy the last two weeks of October dressing up and decorating calaveras ”“the skull and bones figures that are omnipresent in Los Angeles’ Day of the Dead commemorations.

While the Seniors prepared for a community Day of the Dead celebration to be held at Ramona Gardens on Nov. 15, they were encouraged to finish their calaveras to take home and use for their personal commemoration on Nov. 1.

The calaveras were crafted under the patient and watchful eye of Emma Hernández, a former community center director at Ramona Gardens who now volunteers with the seniors.

“I felt in my heart I had to come back and contribute to the community that helped me out when I was here,” says Hernández, who often brought artists to lead workshops at Ramona Gardens during her tenure there. “I was learning from [the residents] as I was teaching them at the same time.”

Hernández encouraged residents like Cervantes to express their own feelings through their craftwork.

Cervantes has had a small altar at home since her father died 10 years ago. Underneath an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, she says, there is a photograph of her father and of her father-in-law, who died months later. “I used to have candles, but I took them down since I take care of my grandson.”

In the miniature altar she prepared this year, she tried to depict the elder men in the attires she remembers them wearing. She planned to add the framed tribute to her home’s sacred space.

Cervantes says local Day of the Dead commemorations have little to do with the way the day is commemorated in her native Michoacán. “[In Mexico], we would spend all day at the cemetery.”

Not all the Ramona Gardens seniors share that experience. For Mirthala Álvarez, a native of El Salvador, the Day of the Dead is a foreign commemoration that she has willingly adopted.

“We never did this in El Salvador,” Álvarez says as she tries to figure out how to put leggings on her elegantly dressed calaca. “Here we learn from different cultures.”

Across the table from Álvarez, Rosa Gutiérrez works on dressing her own skull and bone figures.

“The calaveras represent us,” says Gutiérrez, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, who gets teary eyed when when she remembers her late parents.

“My mother died 50 years ago, and I have never gone to see her in the cemetery,” she recalls.

“My father died five years ago, and I haven’t been. I prefer to imagine them as they were alive. I don’t feel good going to the cemetery.”

Rosa Cervantes agrees that commemorating the dead is reliving the pain originally felt on their passing.

“When I go to accompany someone [at the cemetery], it’s like renewing the pain of losing them. The hurt is reborn. One never forgets.”

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