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A Family Tradition of Altar Making, As Told by Rio Yañez

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A family photo of a young Rio Yañez in the center of his parents. His mother, on the left, holds Rio's toy Godzilla as he hugs her. His father, on the right, holding a vintage camera.
Yólanda Lopez, Rio Yañez, and René Yañez pose for a family portrait. Each artists in their own right, have greatly contributed to the Chicano arts scene and cultivating the Day of the Dead tradition in San Francisco.  (Photo by Joe Ramos Courtesy of Rene Yañez)

At the heart of Día de los Muertos is a celebration of the cycle of life. It’s a time to talk with our dead. We sing to them, prepare altars with flower and food offerings, and share stories to keep their memories alive. It’s both a sacred and joyous time.

Here in the Bay Area, we go all out for the tradition. Elaborate public altars are constructed in parks, schools, and community spaces. Museums and galleries have exhibits with Day of the Dead themed art and installations. It’s truly a moment of visibility for Latino and Latinx culture and tradition.

But it wasn’t always this way in the Bay Area or the United States, for that matter. To shed light on the history of how Day of the Dead became such a significant tradition in San Francisco, we are talking to artist and curator Rio Yañez.

A polaroid photo of young Rio Yañez holding a comic book and embraced by his father Rene.
Father and son, Rene and Rio Yañez co-curated Day of the Dead Altar exhibits at SOMArts until Rene’s passing. (Courtesy of Rio Yañez)

His father, Rene Yañez, is credited with helping start the Day of the Dead procession that runs through the Mission. The procession (now in its 41st year) started in 1981 and was an extension of the curatorial and educational work Rene Yañez and other Chicano/Latino artists were doing at Galería de La Raza to educate the community about Dia de los Muertos. 

Rio carries the legacy forward by continuing to curate annual Day of the Dead altar exhibits that his father, Rene, started at SOMArts. In doing so, he also continues his parents’ work of mentoring younger artists. Now in its 23rd year at SOMArts, this year’s Day of the Dead show is titled, “To Love and Be Loved in Return,” and invites viewers to collectively  grieve and heal. The exhibit is open through November 4th and can also be viewed virtually

A light up lantern sculpture made with papel picado cut outs. Patterns include hummingbirds and hearts.
Day of the Dead altar sculpture at SOMArts by Victor-Mario Zaballa. (Marisol Medina-Cadena/KQED)


Read the podcast transcript.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Rio Yañez

Marisol: Do you remember your earliest memory of celebrating Day of the Dead in San Francisco? 

 Rio: It would probably be watching my dad assemble an altar at Galeria de la Raza on 24th and Bryant Street here in San Francisco in an art gallery that he was the creative director of. I just remember sitting on the carpet of the gallery and looking at my dad assemble it and I was so little. It was probably before I could walk. So it just seemed like he was putting together some sort of like puzzle or some sort of like sculpture.  I just remember the colors! It was black and white and then these, like, pastel purples. 

Marisol: Growing up, do you remember any conversations with your mom? Like when she was teaching you the tradition, creating a home altar… Was there any explicit conversation about, oh, “the way we do it here in California, in San Francisco isn’t necessarily the way it’s done in Mexico”? For example, like we don’t spend the night in cemeteries… 

Rio: I think it’s always been for my family, and I think really the roots of it in San Francisco have always been very Mexican-American, without the pretense of doing like a super “authentic,” you know, replication of what’s being practiced in Mexico. 

To me… the procession, the altars, the art exhibits like it, it’s very 2nd generation. It’s very Mexican-American. I think it’s always been about kind of making something that’s our own and not necessarily just trying to duplicate something. 

Marisol: Separate from your curatorial artistic practice. I’m just curious for your home altar or your private altar. What are some of the things you’re going to put on your altar for your parents and why? 

 Rio: So for my dad, outside of being a curator, when he would get home, he just loved to draw in his sketchbooks. And, you know, his routine was just always to brew a cup of coffee and roll a joint and work at his sketchbook. And so art supplies coffee and a little bit of mota is always what I leave out for him. 

Rio: For my mom… I left out some of her favorite CDs in in our altar and photographs of her uncle, who is the reason why she came to the Bay Area in the first place. Even in grief, having lost both of my parents in the recent years, there’s just a lot of joy  in making these things and sharing them with them for the night. 


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