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Day of the Dead unites cultures through loss

SCOTT MANCHESTER/ARGUS-COURIER Teresa Froschl with an altar for past members of the museum that she and Abraham Solar put together as part of El Dia do Los Muertos at the Petaluma Historical Museum.

SCOTT MANCHESTER/ ARGUS-COURIER STAFF
Published: Friday, October 11, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.

For many Petalumans, El Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) has become a favorite tradition in recent years.

A host of Day of the Dead-themed events occur throughout October and early November, and all the while, traditional altars adorn shop windows and pique the curiosity of passers by.

In these altars, or offrendas, beloved photographs mingle with a rainbow of tablecloths, crisply noted memories and shimmering candles, commemorating deceased friends and relatives.

Yet for the organizers of this annual event, there is more behind the Petaluma festival than what appears in storefronts. No matter one's ethnicity, Day of the Dead brings community members together in one common goal: to honor lost loved ones.

Sitting down with Teresa Froschl, a founder of Petaluma's El Dia de los Muertos celebration, her own connection with this Mexican holiday comes to light.

“My parents were Spanish speakers, so I grew up with a foreign language and a foreign food,” she said. “It's just in me, an interest in other customs. [When] Margie Helm — a founder of Day of the Dead — asked if I would be interested 13 years ago, I said yes. I've been interested ever since and I've made the altars ever since.”

Froschl, who moved from San Francisco to Petaluma about 40 years ago, found that a past career in bilingual education helped her to become a leader of the annual event. This year, as she has for the past 13 years, Froschl designed the Petaluma Art Centre's offrenda for children who have died.

With a wistful look, Froschl remembered how the idea for the altar came about at a time when many children she knew had died.

“(Thirteen years ago), we had so many children who had died of illness, cancer and whatnot,” she said. “And then there were so many children who had gone missing like Polly Klaas, so I just started collecting their pictures.”

She does not write on the altar how or why the children died; rather, the finished product is a commemoration in incense, pictures and words about the community's littlest lost ones. Through memories and offerings, it is a celebration of the life of children.

Margo Gallagher, another key figure in the town-wide festival, is not a native Spanish speaker (her family is of Russian and Jewish descent), but her interest in the event stretches back many years to when she noticed the altars downtown.

Then, 10 years ago, after the death of her husband, mother and son within a short timeframe, El Dia de los Muertos took on new meaning.

“I could bring (my son) Aaron's altar downtown, introduce my son to others, and invite him back in to the community where he grew up,” she said.

“Once when I was putting together a new altar for Aaron, a friend made a comment: 'This is so sad. Isn't it sad for you?' and I said 'No, just the opposite. It's sad for me to have Aaron disappear after all these years. This is wonderful to be able to share his life with others again.'”

Gallagher's personal connection with El Dia de los Muertos has led her to become one of Petaluma's go-to persons in regard to altar making and sharing. With the help of altar organizer Kirsten Smith, she placed 80 altars in public and private spaces across town this year alone. While the offrendas are on display in shops for the entirety of the festival, the two also host guided tours to give interested locals and visitors an in-depth look into this tradition.

Gallagher helps families who have lost loved ones keep their memories alive through the altars. As Gallagher puts it, “Through my involvement with El Dia de los Muertos and the people I have met, I have learned just because someone dies doesn't mean they have to be forgotten.”

(Contact Cyprien Pearson at argus@arguscourier.com.)

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