Macario Ramirez, co-owner with wife Chrissie of the Heights-area Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery, recalls the negative reactions Día de los Muertos altars and merchandise would get when they first opened the store. “We'd get hostile visitors here. They'd say, 'What in the hell are you doing? What are those skulls about?' I'd say, 'Aren't they beautiful? Look they're smiling,” Ramirez tells us laughing. “I'd tell them, 'They represent our ancestors; that's what they are.' Of course, then they didn't know what to say. We'd get threatening phone calls, too. They'd say, 'You faithless bastard!' We don't get those anymore … now we have caller ID.”
Casa Ramirez has been promoting Hispanic culture, in particular, Mexican art forms and traditions, for decades. The yearly celebration of Día de los Muertos have been particularly popular. Free classes about the history and traditions of Día de los Muertos are filled with people of every background and age. The annual exhibit of altars by members of the community in honor of dead loved ones is popular attracting visitors all month long.
And the street party the gallery hosts keeps growing. The party, which happens to fall on Halloween this year, includes a procession led by fully costumed Aztec dancers and musicians, throngs of celebrants, traditional Mexican food and more.
Still, the racism and anti-immigrant sentiments that first prompted Ramirez to start the gallery raise their ugly heads from time to time.
“Just the other day, somebody stole our Mexican flag. They didn't touch the American flag but they took the Mexican one.” Ramirez and his wife are trying to put a good spin on the theft. “We're pretending that some Mexican came over and said, 'Oh, I need that over at my house.' We're hoping it wasn't someone who said, 'This doesn't belong here.' But it's gone.”
Ramirez pauses before he says, “They didn't know that I had one in reserve.”
(Note to the thief: A new Mexican flag was immediately hung at the gallery.)
Ramirez has been celebrating Day of the Dead since he was a child. He admits he was initially frightened by the skull, skeletons and other symbols of death associated with the holiday. Ramirez first saw Day of the Dead altars when his father took him to see his grandmother in Saltillo, Mexico.
“They scared the hell out of me!” Ramirez says. “My father told me, 'No, no, you need to understand this.' That's when I started learning about it, the traditions and what they meant. I kept learning about it and I studied.”
After opening the gallery, Ramirez looked for ways to involve the community in cultural celebrations.
“We started with Día de los Muertos because it's very personal and we knew we could get people involved. We've done well. It's gotten bigger and better and more and more inclusive.
Ramirez credits his parents, Mexican immigrants, for instilling cultural awareness and pride in him.
He tells us his father, a usually gentle and soft-spoken man, always called Halloween “pinche Halloween.” (Politely translated as lousy Halloween.) “He hated the fact that Halloween took attention away from Día de los Muertos, the day we celebrated our ancestors.”
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(These days it's easy to imagine that somewhere someone's calling Casa Ramirez's annual Día de los Muertos celebration “lousy Day of the Dead.” It's become more popular than most Halloween celebrations in the area.)
“My parents would always make a point to tell us kids about our history. If I told my father, 'Look, there's a cowboy,' he'd stop me and say, 'No, no, no, that's not a real cowboy.' Then he'd tell me all about Mexican vaqueros who pre-dated the American cowboys.”
“They'd always make sure we knew the truth and then they would tell us, 'But now we're here in America and we have to adapt.' I've spent the last 50 years un-adapting.”
The exhibit of personal altars continues through November 7. The procession and party is 5 to 8 p.m. October 31. Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery, 241 West 19th. For information, call 731-880-2420. Free.