Nichos decorate an altar at the Oakland Museum of California for Day of the Dead. The central inch was made by art therapist Alicia Diaz to honor her grandmother. Diaz says was very religious and loved the color yellow. (Farida Jhabvala Romero /KQED)
Carmen Gonzalez combs through pictures of her youngest son, Jacob. She picks one that shows him in boxing gear, his gloved fists raised. He looks straight at the camera. In another, he’s more relaxed, with his long, wavy hair reaching down to his shoulders. His arm hangs around his mother.
“My son was a very charming, popular kid with girls,” says Gonzalez. “He was funny, and he always had a smiling face. No one could resist him.”
Two years ago, when Jacob was 17, he was accidentally killed by a friend who shot him in the back while they sat in a parking lot.
“Instead of waiting for a kid to graduate from high school or drive his own car, we have nothing. He just left. And he left us with an empty heart, because we love him so much,” she says.
Gonzalez felt a deep sense of injustice over her son’s sudden death. She became depressed and angry. That’s when she decided to look for help and came to a grief group at Oakland's La Clinica de la Raza. Participants meet weekly to talk about their emotions and learn different ways to cope. And today, that includes tapping into traditional medicine and art as Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of loved ones who have died, approaches.
Gonzalez and her husband first made a nicho -- a small box decorated to honor someone who has died -- in their son's memory for Dia de los Muertos last year. They decorated it with things Jacob loved, such as green apples, Cheetos, Star Wars figurines and chicken. She says the process of making the nicho brought a lot of tears.
“It's hard to think that our kid is not with us anymore,” she said.
The nicho that Gonzalez is making for her son this year is different. She glues red sequins onto the edge of the box and says she plans on adding a dancing calavera or skeleton. The pain of losing her son hasn’t subsided, she says, but she feels less anger.
“The one I’m doing now is a little bit like resignation, because I know he is connected. Energy always transforms into something different,” Gonzalez says. “And that’s what I want to believe, that he is still with me.”
Everyone in the group is busily working on tables with fabrics and flowers. They take turns using a glue gun to paste tiny ceramic figurines of tamales and enchiladas onto their boxes.
Victor Perez, 14, has just put the first layer of paint on the nicho for his parents. They died in a car accident when he was just 3 years old. He made a nicho last year with pictures of them and other items.
“My dad used to have his own workshop so I put cars, tools. And a hummingbird, because every time I used to see a hummingbird, that reminded me of (my mom),” says Perez.
Sometimes, he says, he kisses the nicho goodnight.
Psychologist Ricardo Carrillo leads the group, which is part of La Clinica’s Cultura y Bienestar (Culture and Wellbeing) mental health program. He says that by making this art, people here are rerooting themselves in traditions that offer healthy approaches to life and death.
“It strengthens our mental health in that we have a place to bring our grief, bring our loss in a celebratory way,” says Carrillo. “We accept the fact that we are going to die. The question is, what do we want to leave and what did our loved ones leave for us? And that’s what we try to celebrate in the artwork that we are doing.”
Carrillo is also working on a nicho for his sister, who died last year of complications from alcoholism. He paints it with bright pinks and purples.
“She was a really girly girl, but at the same time had the heart of a tough guy,” says Carrillo. “She was a beautiful person, but she suffered her entire life.”
Art therapist Alicia Diaz started the grief group nearly nine years ago. She recognized the natural fit of making nichos to help this community, and now is setting up an altar with nichos at the Oakland Museum of California.
“If people can make that connection to the person that's passed away, let that creativity just run from their heart to their hands and create without judgment, it shows," she says. "People love it, and people love to look at them.”
Diaz didn’t grow up with the tradition -– this hybrid between popular and religious art. But she fell in love with it after learning about it when she was in graduate school. Now she has helped more than 100 people make nichos for loved ones.
“I look at every nicho and think, 'That’s a person. That was somebody’s life, and somebody is grieving them and missing them and this is real!' It’s not just a painting or a creation,” she says.