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Art and tradition in memoriam

Mexican Tiffinite pays tribute to the deceased through carving and culture
Tiffin resident Miriam Alarcón Avila carves a cherub, or angelito, on a pumpkin at her home Friday, Nov. 2, to commemorate her recently deceased sister. Such carvings have become an annual fall tradition in Alarcón Avila’s home, coinciding with Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Nov. 1 and 2. An ofrenda altar, seen in the background, also pays tribute to the deceased. (photo by Cale Stelken)

TIFFIN– As locals wind down the festivities of Halloween, other members of the community begin a different kind of spectral celebration.
Upon entering the Tiffin home of Miriam Alarcón Avila in November, visitors are greeted by an ofrenda, a candle-lit altar. Nov. 1 and 2 mark the Latin celebration of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and 2018 brought a decidedly poignant time of remembrance for the Tiffin mother. This fall, Alarcón Avila, her daughter and her son were faced with the sudden death of multiple family members: her aunt Jaqueline in September; little sister Rosalinda on Oct. 28; and uncle Guillermo the following day.
The ofrenda was decorated with vintage black and white photos of her father, Alfredo, a stage actor in Mexico who died when she was a child, and her sister in calavera face paint. An iPad in the center of the altar cycled though photos of deceased loved ones, as well as famous luchadores, or Mexican professional wrestlers. On a shelf above, a photo of Frida Kahlo stood near a bottle of tequila. “A lot of people dedicate it to artists, sports players... anyone who pass away,” she explained, noting some people even include pets. “It’s a beautiful tradition.”
The shimmery mask of luchador El Santo features prominently in Alarcón Avila’s altar, a reference to her and her father’s shared passion for lucha libre.
“I love luchas. That’s one of the things that I learned from my dad; he always wanted to have a boy,” she said, recalling his insistence that she watch sports with him. While uninterested at first, she developed an everlasting love of lucha libre. “He cut my hair really short, and I just hated it,” she laughed.
A pastry called pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is made just once a year for the holiday and sits among the decorations– which include apples, Mexican chocolate and a traditional brown sugar known as piloncillo– inviting spirits of the deceased to take part in the food and drink.
“Last night, the little angelitos come and eat and enjoy from the (ofrenda)– the kids and babies who’ve died. Tonight, Nov. 2, the adults come,” she explained. “So in the night, we believe that they will arrive and enjoy it… and tomorrow morning, we will be able to eat from it.”
In keeping with tradition, Alarcón Avila also planned to attend a Día de los Muertos fiesta, where she paints friends’ faces in calavera (skull) designs.

Carving to commemorate

Fall also marks the time of year when Alarcón Avila carves pumpkins, though in a far more elaborate sense than your typical jack-o’-lantern. While understandably lacking the time and energy to create many carvings this season, the rainy evening of Friday, Nov. 2, had Alarcón Avila sculpting a tribute to her sister in the form of a little angelito, or cherub, tying the artistic hobby in with cultural commemoration.
“When she was little, she had this very sweet face,” she recalled as she worked. “This is definitely not looking like her, but it’s just inspired to the fact that she was an angelito.”
Alarcón Avila was first introduced to the art form through the International Women’s Club of Iowa City in 2002. She soon started sand sculpting as part of Sand in the City, which hosts community-building fundraisers in Iowa, and continued to improve her pumpkin carving skills in the years following.
X-Acto knife in hand, she vigorously shaped feathers out of the fruit over a backdrop of soothing Eastern music. The large gourd was steadied on a stool as bits of orange pulp flew in the air and large shavings fell to the hardwood floor of her living room.
“Since I was a little girl I wanted to be an artist,” she noted, citing that because her family insisted she take a more profitable route, “I didn’t follow my call, and when I have to sign to choose a major, I kept saying I betrayed myself.”
Alarcón Avila has gone on to become a biologist with the University of Iowa and an avid painter and photographer, using the latter skill for her Luchadores Immigrants in Iowa project. Featuring portrait photos of Iowan immigrants and poetry, the in-progress concept is planned for presentation Nov. 19, 2019, at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.
A pumpkin candy called dulce de calabaza is traditionally included in the ofrenda, but for Alarcón Avila, her skillful carvings serve as an artistic placeholder.
“My mom used to make it every year for the ofrenda. I never made it because it’s very elaborate and complicated,” she explained. “So for me, carving pumpkins for the ofrenda is kinda like making candy pumpkin– candy pumpkin for your eyes,” she laughed.
To prevent oxidation and support the artwork’s longevity, she squeezes the bristles of a paintbrush with half a lime and applies it to the fresh carving. As Alarcón Avila makes progress on her sculpture, she’s careful not to create any holes, which would accelerate spoilage, and says if you screw up the eyes, “you’re screwed.” Still, despite the challenges, she finds the delicate art form therapeutic.
“It’s my meditation,” she quipped.
Perhaps more than ever before, this year’s Día de los Muertos has been a reflection on mortality and life’s impermanence for the Tiffinite.
“It’s kind of part of the ephemera art, you know? Sand, pumpkins… It’s not gonna be there forever,” she said as she put the final touches on her angelic tribute.
“Sometimes I ask myself, why do I want to put so much work in something that’s just going to end up like that one? All dry, and squirrels are gonna get into. It’s just gonna go bad soon,” she contemplated, referring to an aging carved pumpkin sitting on her porch. “But now I think that is the beauty of the ‘nothing is forever.’ There is beauty in the moment.”