For the last 12 years, Alicia Cruz’s Día de los Muertos installations at SOMArts have highlighted topics such as border rejection, intergenerational trauma and familial separation. With her background as a therapist, Cruz creates interactive art through the lens of mental health, prioritizing and spotlighting personal, familial and communal healing. 

This year however, with the Latinx community in San Francisco being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter Movement protesting the murder of police brutality victims George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Sean Monterossa, Día de Los Muertos is an especially important celebration to those that have been lost through injustice. 

As Cruz deliberated her plan for an installation this year to properly address these intersectional issues, the added complication of COVID-19 left her wondering how the project could transform to meet the needs of the community while also remaining as safe as possible. 

On Nov. 1, Cruz organized a children’s march honoring the Black Lives Matter movement, complete with her own hand painted signs spotlighting various issues and subjects around the movement at Holly Park. She notes that many feel helpless at this time, including herself at times.

“How do I express my views and solidarity during a pandemic? I thought. I’m going to create a march,” Cruz said. 

As a part of her installation and march, Cruz created 150 of her own signs, rather than the participants bring their own. In bright colors and ribbons to commemorate Día de Los Muertos, Cruz hopes to lighten some of the weight of the topics her installation speaks to through vibrancy that is Día de Los Muertos. She believes that the signs that are brought to protests, while poignant, can lack certain depth when addressing deep rooted systemic problems like racial injustice, colonization, the prison industrial complex, and police brutality. 

Cruz spent a great deal of time researching the history of different civil rights movements in the United States as she crafted these signs. Several speak on the Great Migration of Black folks from the South to the North in the early 1900s, and the racial injustice they faced not only in the South, but in the North as well, among several other historical injustices in the U.S. Others have quotes, from Snoop Dog, Barbie, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Obama, and more.

Therapist and artist Alicia Cruz and her two sons, Río (left) and Ozzie (right) pose for a portrait next to an altar dedicated to Sean Monterrosa, across the street from Holly Park on Friday, October 9, with signs they created for an upcoming Blacks Lives Matter march she’s organizing with children from the neighborhood. Cruz believes that when children are exposed to issues of injustice from a young age, they are better equipped to recognize their privileges and deal with trauma as adults. Photo: Mabel Jimenez

When it comes to racial injustice, Cruz notes people of color, specifically Black folks, do not have the luxury or ability to ignore racism, as it is part of their lived experience. Focused on the differences in socialization for Black and Brown children compared to children with privilege, Cruz emphasizes that Black and Brown children have been taught from an early age how to act around police, talk to people in affluent areas and apologize for any perceived disruptions in order to stay safe. 

Cruz suggests that if Black and Brown parents have to sit their child down to have a conversation about racism and the ways that they may be targeted, then affluent white parents and children must regard the privileges that they hold. Cruz’s march commemorating the Black Lives Matter movement centers children, specifically on the first day of Día de los Muertos, Día de los Inocentes.

Drawing from her experience as a therapist and mother of biracial children, Cruz believes that children are not too young or innocent to engage in these discussions, especially because children of color, especially Black youth, have to be aware from a much younger age of the unjust realities of racism and systemic oppression. As well as a mental health professional, Cruz has plans to continually interact with the participants, checking in beforehand to discuss their expectations as well as regrouping after, to see how the march was like for them as participants. 

“You can’t just say Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police and more if you don’t understand who it really affects, if you don’t have those conversations with your friends, your neighbor,” Cruz said. “That’s what I’m hoping from this generation of privileged children. They can have those conversations with their friends or their parents and it’s not taboo and something that they do not feel taboo or guilty about…Children are resilient and can handle conversations that are around race and privilege.”

Cruz hopes that the viewer’s main takeaway from this experience is the confrontation of discomfort. While people could feel uncomfortable with children holding these signs, Cruz regards, they should be impassioned to end the systems and practices that force Black and Brown children to be aware from a young age that they could be killed for the color of their skin. There is luxury in being shielded from the realities of police brutality and racial injustice in the United States, and children of color do not have that. As Cruz works as a therapist in conjunction with being an artist, she hopes that her installation will have lasting, intergenerational effects. 

Therapist and artist Alicia Cruz poses for a portrait at Holly Park on Friday, October 9, with signs she and her sons created for an upcoming Blacks Lives Matter march she’s organizing with children from the neighborhood. Cruz believes that when children are exposed to issues of injustice from a young age, they are better equipped to recognize their privileges and deal with trauma as adults. Photo: Mabel Jiménez

“It trickles down to our children,” Cruz said. “They say that it takes five generations to heal. Part of the healing is going on these marches, speaking out and speaking up. I understand and know that I speak about Black Lives Matter because I think that unless that shifts, no one’s lives will matter. It is important for all of us to feel seen and recognized. That for me is the driving force, for our Black brothers and sisters, African American brothers and sisters to be seen and recognized.”