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Fruitvale artist honors the dead, celebrates life of the community

Fruitvale artist honors the dead, celebrates life of the community

In the face of more than a million confirmed deaths this year from COVID-19 and ongoing outrage over police killings, Dia de los Muertos has taken on a new meaning for Fruitvale artist, Favianna Rodriguez. 

The Fruitvale neighborhood in East Oakland is home to one Dia de los Muertos festival which draws tens of thousands of people each year, as the East Bay’s biggest Latinx cultural event. This year, the festival’s 25th anniversary, festivities will be held online and at home. 

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And as this year’s poster artist, Rodriguez went beyond creating a colorful illustration for a flyer. As the festival’s website notes, “2020 has been a year of sickness, fear, suffering and despotism,” and Rodriguez did not ignore this reality in her creations. 

World-renowned Fruitvale artist Favianna Rodriguez is featured in one of the episodes of “Real Fruitvale,” and uses her art to promote social change and activism. Courtesy: Real Fruitvale

Fruitvale, home to the largest Latinx community in Oakland and many frontline essential workers, is one of three zip codes with the highest rates of COVID-19 positive tests in Alameda County. Before this year, too, Fruitvale was “known for tragedy,” Rodriguez said. Oscar Grant was killed by BART police at Fruitvale station in 2009, and in 2016 the Ghost Ship warehouse fire took 36 lives. 

Rodriguez hopes to help change the narrative. She co-produced a mini-documentary series titled The Real Fruitvale, showcasing her community’s cultural vibrancy and promoting the virtual festival. 

The Unity Council, a local non-profit Rodriguez referred to as “an anchor in the community,” hosts the yearly festival, and partnered with Rodriguez to produce the films. The Unity Council’s press release last month announced that the documentary follows the story of five pillars in the Fruitvale: “artists, culture makers, and social change agents who are thriving despite incredible odds and who are transforming their community.” 

Four of the mini-documentaries, including one about Rodriguez and her artwork, were released in October. Rodriguez is a visual artist who makes everything from prints to murals, and she’s now trying out film production. The fifth mini-documentary, about community health organization La Clinica de la Raza and COVID-19’s devastating impact in the Fruitvale, Rodriguez said will launch Nov. 9. 

This year’s festival being online will further impact the locals and their relied-upon income, and Rodriguez hopes the documentaries can bring attention to the neighborhood and showcase local spirit nonetheless. At the festival’s website, attendees could place bids in an auction, learn how to paint their faces through tutorial videos, and support local vendors in the ‘Muertos Mercadito,’ open through Nov. 15. 

For the event’s official poster, Rodriguez illustrated a traditional colorful altar with candles and skulls and fruit, but included a photo frame labeled “COVID-19,” and a streamer with the names of people killed at the hands of police: Elijah, Breonna, George, Sean, and more. She also designed papel picado cutouts for printing and coloring from home, one of which reads “Black Lives Matter.” 

Image from the new mini-docu series, “Real Fruitvale,” which showcases the resilience and ingenuity of artists and changemakers from the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, California. Courtesy: Real Fruitvale

“When we’re talking about honoring our dead, we also are talking about honoring those who have died in the hands of police, especially Black people,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez said she “wanted to show the death that is due to government negligence and systemic racism.” This is not only in her community, which has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, but also amongst other marginalized communities. 

Another of Rodriguez’s goals through the mini-documentary series was to showcase Black and Latinx unity: beginning with her collaboration with Black filmmakers Jeff Arthur and KimberLee Webber from Rewire Creative to produce the series. 

“It’s just important for us to have a multiracial lens on our history, as Oaklanders,” Rodriguez said. According to census data, Oakland is 23.6 percent Black and 26.9 percent Latinx. 

Going further, Rodriguez said Latinx people must support Black liberation, suggesting the two groups’ liberations are intertwined. She noted how the Fruitvale was once home to a powerful Chicano movement—in the 1970s, the Black Panthers worked together with Chicano activists to lift up their oppressed communities. 

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World-renowned Fruitvale artist Favianna Rodriguez is featured in one of the episodes of “Real Fruitvale,” and uses her art to promote social change and activism. Courtesy: Real Fruitvale

Unfortunately, Rodriguez said, “We have really not reconciled with the reality, with the truth of what happened on our land, which was the genocide of our Indigenous ancestors, and the brutal exploitation of African peoples.” 

She believes the Latinx community is in a process of “decolonizing,” and still has a long way to go. 

Rodriguez, born and raised in the Fruitvale, was witness to the war on drugs and the dot-com boom, but while she grew up learning from local muralists and still owns a home in the neighborhood, she never stopped to make art specific to her hometown until the pandemic kept her home this year. 

Always an activist, Rodriguez, like her community, rose to the occasion. She hopes to bring a new visibility to the Fruitvale. “There’s not a lot of content about our hood, besides tragedy,” Rodriguez said. “We need to show the amazing stories that are here.” 

In spite of a mournful 2020, Fruitvale still has a life to be celebrated, and this duality is typified in the festival’s theme this year of “Tears and Flowers.” As the festival website said, “These dark moments have at times given way to movements of resilience, solidarity, justice, and hope.” 

Visit DiaOakland.com to learn more about the Dia de los Muertos festival.  

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