Day of the Dead comes to life in Petaluma

Petaluma has a long tradition of celebrating the Mexican holiday with colorful events planned this year.|

For Margo Gallagher, October comes with a lot of emotions.

Ever year the Petaluma resident takes the altar for her son, Aaron Gallagher, downtown to honor his memory for El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. At 20 years old, he died after putting up a valiant fight against cystic fibrosis.

Those who knew Aaron usually stop by the Petaluma Mail Depot, where his altar is located, to share stories. His cousin, who now has a 3-year-old son, can even pass on his tale to those that never knew him.

“Aaron is not truly gone as long as his memory lives on,” said Margo, co-coordinator of El Dia de los Muertos Petaluma. “Our community celebration offers us all the chance to collectively remember and honor our loved ones each year. It strengthens our friendships and support. It’s a beautiful tradition.”

Aaron Gallagher is just one of the stories behind the downtown altars – called ofrendas in Spanish. During the buildup to El Dia de los Muertos, which lasts Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 this year, families from all over Petaluma leave their altars in businesses along Kentucky and 4th streets.

Through this communal support system, Margo Gallagher’s grieving gives way to joy. Over the last 18 years, local nonprofit El Dia de los Muertos Petaluma has transformed the holiday into a month-long, citywide celebration, with numerous events filling the calendar to help bring the community together.

“This celebration is so meaningful for me to be able to share my family members with my community – to give support and get support,” Gallagher said. “It’s healing for all of us.”

Co-coordinator Abraham Solar, director of Hispanic ministry for St. Vincent de Paul Church, has fond memories celebrating the Day of the Dead when he was growing up in Mexico City.

Every year Solar and his family would gather at his grandmother’s grave site where they would clean the area, put out fresh flowers, pray and, of course, eat.

When a family member dies, they need assistance from those they leave behind so they can properly pass on, Solar said. By bringing food and praying each year, they honor their memory, allowing the dead to successfully navigate the afterlife.

“They believed that after leaving the valley of life, you go to the valley of death, but it’s always a long journey,” Solar said. “You needed food, spiritual guidance and even also the (guide animal) … so you can cross safely without getting lost in the valley of just being forgotten.”

This year marks the 18th celebration of El Dia de los Muertos Petaluma, and the 2018 theme is “hope,” spotlighting the feeling that comes with each new addition to the valley of the life, Solar said.

“The celebration in Petaluma is part of the community now,” he said. “It doesn’t belong to any ethnic group. It’s a Petaluma festivity. Everybody who wants to honor and share the legacy of their loved ones, who have come before them, the celebration is there to share and build community.”

Throughout October, events are held to help bring different elements of the celebration to life.

The IceHouse Gallery, which has become the unofficial hub for the holiday, has been hosting receptions to highlight the work of local Latino artists.

Last weekend, Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma held a poetry reading hosted by poet laureate Maya Khosla. On Saturday, the college held its annual El Dia de los Muertos Community Celebration, which offered art-related activities for children, and hosted performances from Aztec dancers and Loco Novo, a Windsor-based youth drumline.

The city’s celebration peaks this Saturday with the annual candlelight procession to the fairgrounds. Every year hundreds of residents and visitors carry altars, dancing to the rhythms of the march, adorned in calaveras makeup. Once they arrive, a festival ensues, starting at 4 p.m.

City officials recently honored the nonprofit with a proclamation at the Oct. 15 city council meeting, recognizing the cultural contributions of celebrating El Dia de los Muertos in Petaluma.

“We were very happy and felt honored to have the proclamation,” Gallagher said. “We’re very, very passionate about what we’re doing. We believe in it. We believe in the cross-cultural aspect and sharing a beautiful celebration with everybody.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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