Earlier this year, Rigo Maldonado’s Valley High School students worked diligently on a ceramics project far removed from Día de los Muertos. The visual arts teacher’s lesson focused on narrative pots and how Pre-Columbian, African and Asian cultures used them.
“The narrative pots were a way for ancient civilizations to tell their stories,” says Maldonado, Santa Ana-based artist. “What I do is I have the kids build their own narrative pots to tell any story they want to tell using symbols.”
In March, students readied their clay pots to be fired as they patiently awaited the chance to paint imagery more focused on dreams than memories. “I work with the poorest students in Orange County,” says Maldonado. “I give them the freedom to create their own narrative.”
And then the coronavirus pandemic suddenly shuttered the Santa Ana school site, flipping the script.
Maldonado didn’t know when, or if, in-person classes would return. For months, the abandoned pots stayed idle in his classroom as remote learning took over. By June, the pandemic’s first wave raged across the United States and claimed its first 100,000 lives. Santa Ana became an epicenter of infection in Orange County as the school year let out for the summer.
The remaining 180 pots still preoccupied Maldonado’s mind. He pleaded with school officials to let him return to his classroom to retrieve them. When Maldonado did, he found himself in an eerily still environment. “There was this weird silence and loneliness to the classroom that was once filled with all these ideas and creativity,” Maldonado says. “Things were left undone, unsaid and unfinished.”
He fired the pots before deciding to repurpose them as an art project centered on the pandemic. And then a racial reckoning in America erupted and defiantly proclaimed that Black lives mattered amid police violence. Activists toppled racist monuments and tributes, even in OC. Protests in Santa Ana brought mostly young people out on the streets.
The opportunity to widen the artistic conversation and reimagine his students’ pots availed itself when Sandy Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based painter, solicited submissions for “Ofrendas2020,” a Día de los Muertos virtual exhibit at Self-Help Graphics in Boyle Heights.
Maldonado, a veteran of altar making and art installations, was involved with Día de los Muertos events in Santa Ana for many years and maintained a relationship with Rodriguez, having worked together in the past. For his submission, he stacked the unpainted pots on top of each other in turning them into totem poles. But something still didn’t feel right.
“The installation had a mind of its own,” says Maldonado. “When I first installed it, the totem poles didn’t look complete enough to tell the story.”
He remembered a past Día de los Muertos project involving his students at the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Costa Mesa. Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble co-founder Sara Guerrero invited them to do an installation involving plates. This time around, those same plates became repurposed as portraits of those fallen either to coronavirus or to police violence. The installation paid homage to people whose death made national headlines, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, or who passed quietly without any media mention.
“Once you have a person that is part of a loss or a memory, then you have time to reflect,” says Maldonado.
He asked his students if they wanted to include anyone that they knew who died in the pandemic. Two students followed up on the invitation to remember a loved one.
Maldonado completed the art installation by placing the plates on small altars surrounded by cempasúchil flowers strewn on the floor. There was only thing missing for the terracotta sculpture: a name. Maldonado did a call out of his own on social media. A friend suggested he read “And Still I Rise,” a beloved poem by the late Maya Angelou whose title summed up the artistic effort.
“That poem really reflects what we’re going through, as a worldwide community,” says Maldonado. “There’s still a little bit of hope for us. We will still rise from the ashes of this.”
Maldonado joined more than a dozen other artists for Self-Help Graphics’ 47th annual celebration of Día de los Muertos. An event program featuring musical artists streamed via YouTube on Sunday. Ofrendas 2020, the virtual exhibit of artwork and gallery installations curated by Rodriguez, got an earlier start on October 13 and continues through November 27 on the community art center’s website.
Observing Día de los Muertos amid a pandemic and racial justice protests gives an opportunity to bring the holiday back to its roots.
“It’s a time for reflection,” says Maldonado. “Día de Muertos isn’t about having the best altar or the one with the most candles. We are honoring people. You don’t need a big festival in order to honor someone.”
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.