When it comes to keeping tradition alive, renowned San Francisco artist Rene Yañez and his son Rio prefer an unconventional approach: They celebrate death. And, they creatively use it to spark dialogue about controversial issues within their community.
The Yañez’s have co-curated the Day of the Dead exhibit in the SOMArt’s Cultural Center for the last nine years, with this year’s “Visions at Twilight” show blending cultural tradition with contemporary political issues and conceptual artistic aesthetics.
Now in its 15th year at SOMArts, the month-long exhibit celebrated its opening night on Oct. 10. Along with more conventional and colorful altars, visitors to this year’s exhibit will find themselves confronted with pressing issues such as institutionalized police violence, San Francisco’s rampant housing crisis and an aggressive shift in the Bay Area’s demographics as a consequence of gentrification.
“It’s the artists who are on the line—but every single one of us has something at stake with this,” said Rio. “We are all kind of looking at our roles in this scenario and what we can do to effect change positively and negatively.”
It was in 1972 that Rene first introduced the traditional Mexican holiday to the Bay Area in the form of altar installations at the Mission District’s Galería de la Raza, which he founded two years prior. At that time, said Rene, the exhibit looked very different.
In a neighborhood that was at that time mostly Latino, Rene created a tradition that soon became a cross-cultural institution in the Mission District, drawing thousands of visitors from throughout the Bay Area.
Over the past 15 years at SOMArts, the exhibit’s themes have evolved with the needs of the community.
This year, there is an altar dedicated to Alejandro Nieto, a 28-year-old security guard who was shot and killed by the San Francisco Police Department in March.
Rene entered the altar that resembles a living room, lovingly assembled by Nieto’s family and friends. Baseball caps and photographs adorn the walls of the closed-off space, the steady buzzing of a television delivers background noise and Nieto’s security guard uniform is neatly spread on a clothes hanger.
“These are his personal belongings,” explained Rio. “They are literally the offerings that his family is making to take on to the next world. It is extremely powerful.”
Rene took a seat on a small couch in front of the television to breathe in silence. The memories captured within the life-sized altar are palpable even to those who did not know Nieto personally.
“It’s an injustice,” said Rene, breaking his silence. “The (neighbor) that called the police on him, and what set off—the profiling… it’s all part of gentrification, and to me, it is very painful because I see that happening all the time.”
Nieto’s was among many creatively arranged altars depicting the issue and struggle over gentrification in the Mission District.
“The Mission is changing, but it’s up to you to grab that place, grab the memories, and to connect with the people that are there,” said artist Ytaelena Lopez, whose altar is a sandbox filled with pennies, under which icons of the Mission District can be discovered by visitors—a metaphor for the moving of money in the neighborhood.
“When cities change so fast, new people come who are unfamiliar with the collective memory of the people who are already there,” she added. “We want the new people that come to realize that they are part of something bigger than what is new and trendy.”
Arriving in front of his own altar, Rene provides a glimpse of his personal struggle—one that has been covered extensively by local media but that seems to have not impeded his work and commitment within his community.
In October of 2013, after 35 years of living in the Mission, he was evicted under the Ellis Act. According to Rene, the struggle is ongoing, and he and his partner have been able to remain in their home until now.
“It’s a matter of resistance. Techies have a different view of culture. It’s a different phenomenon that is coming into San Francisco, and it’s redefining culture and contribution,” he said.
Both Rene and Rio agree that mourning loss—in the form of culture, a home, or a life—is part of the cycle of life and death, but so is nurturing hope and building resilience.
“These pieces wouldn’t be made if there wasn’t some form of hope and optimism,” said Rio. “Some are very mournful, but it’s also the reason why we are presenting this, the reason we are pushing back is because there is some form of hope that we can make a change here.”