Day of the Dead is not the Mexican version of Halloween-Part 1

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By Mia Bertelsen

Meet the Artist:  Wendy Islas, Paper Mache Artist

This is a series of articles that will feature local, women artists who are using their talents to make the world a more beautiful place and add some money to their family finances along the way.  COVID-19 has changed the rules for all of us, and not all of it is unfavorable.  Artists are realizing that their talents are wanted and needed and social media has been the perfect outlet to let the public support local art.

Chula Vista resident Wendy Islas invited us into her home to view her paper mache “Catrinas” (and Catrín- the boy version) on display in her living room for Day of the Dead.  They are all lovingly made with paper, glue and recycled materials which has a long history in Mexican folk art.  Papier-mâché is French for “chewed paper,” and the material’s history dates back to ancient China.

Day of the Dead is not the Mexican version of Halloween.  It is November 1st and 2nd and is a time to remember those who have passed on with traditions such a making an altar in your home or visiting the cemetery and having a festive party complete with music, food, flowers and a group effort to clean up the gravesites.  Many Mexicans are sad this year because the cemeteries are closed due to COVID concerns and they will have to find other ways to remember.

Wendy has always loved Day of the Dead since her childhood in Mexico City.  She is a multi-talented artist who realized that when she immigrated to the United States from Mexico that her beloved Mexican cultural traditions were being lost. “A lot of people asked me why we don’t celebrate our beautiful Mexican traditions here in the US,” she said.  “Parents are busy raising their children and lack the time to carry them out.”  Wendy shared with us her story as she speaks both perfect English and Spanish.

The Catrina idea came to her about 3 years ago. “I thought that I wanted something big,” she explained.  “I started thinking what should I use?  Recycled materials were perfect.  I started just with paper mache and then I used different materials such as cloth to give it more depth.  I had to learn in the moment how to make them. I even incorporated cups from Starbucks since my kids drink them a lot.”

Wendy hasn’t studied art formally, she is naturally curious and loves to try new things.  “One day my mother-in-law told me that I am talented with my hands,” she shared.  “I didn’t understand it at the moment, but now I do.  The creativity comes to me when you don’t have the materials available.  In Mexico we are always looking around to reuse things and incorporate them into our art.”

The Spanish teachers at her children’s middle and high school were teaching about the Day of the Dead holiday, so last year she shared her Catrinas with the classes. “The kids loved the Catrinas so much and wanted to touch them to feel the texture,” she explained.  “Some of the parts broke, but it is okay.  We can repair it.”

She started creating the first Catrina with the pink dress and comely curves.  She was so popular that last year she made the Frida and her date a catrín (the boy version of la catrina) who represents the culture in Mexico.  “I wanted to make Diego Rivera at her side,  but I should have given him more of a belly,” she laughed. Frida has the beautiful flowers in her hair and the signature uni-brown look.

Day of the Dead is a special holiday in Wendy’s house.  She created an altar in her living room to honor her friends and family who have passed. It is adorned with pictures, skulls, religious symbols and the sugar skulls with names on them so the departed are not forgotten.  “When my dad died, I thought about how I would celebrate him when the cemetery is far away,” she lamented. “I would go every year with my mom to the cemetery and we put the flowers and we would pour some wine over his grave because if your dad liked to drink, you have to share some and then have some yourself.  We would sing, light candles and celebrate him.  I had to put up my altar here so my dad knows that I always remember him. He was too young.  He was 36 years old when he died of a heart attack.”

 Mexico City is an fascinating place to celebrate “los muertos” (the dead).  “We planned to go in October to Mexico City to go to the annual Day of the Dead parade,” she explained.  “You can see all kinds of people who express themselves and their creativity with this holiday.  I love it.” Unfortunately they decided against travelling at this time with the virus.

Her Grandfather is a full-blooded Otomí Indian from Mexico City.  “He used to sing to us their traditional songs in Otomi,” she said. “This is a huge part of my inspiration as an artist to keep these cultural traditions alive and teach all my children about them.”

Wendy’s business started to grow with the help and encouragement of her friends and her husband of 20 years.  “They were always pushing me to do more,” she said.  “I started selling piñatas and custom-made cookies. I make them as if they were for my family and I use good-quality ingredients.”

The Facebook group called Eastlake Food to Go has been a great way for her to promote her culinary creations.  She makes Day of the Dead bread in the traditional style with a crème filling.  She also has family recipes for Mexican favorites like pozole, tamales, mole and more.  Her kitchen is a busy place as she is always making new things.

Her sugar cookies are a huge hit and come in so many designs and styles. “I started seeing how everybody loves Frida Kahlo, so I thought I have to make Frida cookies,” Wendy explained.  “A guy on Etsy made my customized Frida cookie cutter.”   Wendy also makes Day of the Dead cookies that you can decorate with edible colored pens.  Her cookies are delicious.  This reporter must confess that I have eaten a few or more.

Wendy’s greatest pleasure is to use her art and cooking to pass on the culture to her children and others.  Seeing her Catrinas smiling at you and then learning about her story makes Day of the Dead come alive.  Many families in San Diego have special celebrations to remember those who have passed and create their own altars in their homes.  One of the best ways to celebrate this holiday, in my opinion, is to go to Old Town San Diego.  But with the COVID restrictions, you will have to wait until next year for the full party.  This year the businesses will be displaying altars and traditional decorations while observing social distancing rules.

If you are interested in trying some of Wendy’s delicious food or meeting her Catrinas, please go to her Facebook page called La sirena sweets.