The well-known Mexican observance of Día de los Muertos proved this year to be a community-building medium in Glendale.
The Glendale Latino Association typically sets up an altar for the Day of the Dead every year, tipping its cap to its members of Mexican heritage. However, the coronavirus pandemic this year means that access to the organization’s center is closed, so not many people could have seen the piece.
Instead, current events — the war involving Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated Artsakh region that resumed in September — opened a door for the local organization to build bridges with Glendale’s prominent Armenian community. What resulted was a Día de los Muertos altar paying homage to Armenia and Artsakh, for all to see on Glendale’s Artsakh Avenue promenade.
Jennie Quinonez-Skinner, president of the GLA, said the idea came from one of the group’s recent meetings.
“From there, we started making phone calls to see if we had the capacity to do it and see if we had the budget to do it,” she explained. “We had some leftover supplies from years before that we were able to repurpose, and then we had some people in the community help out.”
The altar — emblazoned with the red, blue and yellow of the Armenian tricolor flag and capped with a replica of the “We Are Our Mountains” sculpture associated with Artsakh — was displayed on the promenade from Nov. 1-4 and became a local attraction of sorts for Glendale. Shoppers and pedestrians flocked to photograph the display or, in the holiday tradition, leave the appropriate tokens to add to the presentation.
“They explained that they make an altar and afterward, they take food, flowers, memorabilia, ornaments — something that has to do with Armenia or the soldiers. People could actually walk there with those items and place them,” said Lucy Petrosian, chairwoman of the Glendale chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America. “In Armenian culture, we don’t have anything like that. It was very nice of them to remember our soldiers and the Armenian community.”
The replica of “We Are Our Mountains” — the sculpture is affectionately called tatik-papik in Armenian, meaning “grandmother and grandfather” — drew a parallel to the way family elders are prominently displayed in a typical altar, as illustrated by Disney Pixar’s award-winning film “Coco.”
“That was an important element,” Quinonez-Skinner said. “We just asked one of our artists if he could make something, and we honestly expected something one-dimensional. This was what he was able to do in a week, and it’s awesome.”
Since fighting resumed in Artsakh, local Armenians have frequently flocked to the Armenian Consulate downtown, festooning framed photos of loved ones overseas and leaving candles to remember the fallen. Petrosian said that for her, the Day of the Dead altar presented a similar visual.
“Those pictures and the candles and flowers are there because of all the people who have had family members who are gone,” she explained. “In displaying that, we want to show non-Armenians that this is another kind of genocide. All of our soldiers, they’re going to war when they’re 18, 19, 20.”
The altar lacked one image frequently associated with the Day of the Dead: the colorful and vibrant sugar skulls. Quinonez-Skinner said this omission was out of respect to the Armenian genocide that began in 1915, a tragedy often illustrated infamously by photos of human skulls stacked in piles at excavated mass graves.
“We were doing it as a feature and a sign of respect,” Quinonez-Skinner said, “so we did not include it in there.”
After taking down the altar, the GLA gave the tatik-papik replica to ANCA, to be placed in the organization’s center. The gesture may prove to represent a bridge between the two prominent Glendale organizations, during a moment in which multicultural groups nationwide are coming together as societal blocs.
“It’s displayed there for our youth to come in and see it. We’re going to talk about what they’ve done for us,” Petrosian said. “I want to have a better relationship with them. The Latino Association is huge. They have a lot of members and they’re very powerful in Glendale. I’d like to have a connection with them and even have monthly meetings with them to get to know them better and to work with them better.
“This little thing made us rethink and made me understand that we have to be involved with each other and support one another,” she added.
Quinonez-Skinner said the cultural moment was significant for both herself and her organization.
“It does feel like you’re kind of exposing something special about your family,” she said of the displays. “We’re just really happy that how we were trying to share it was how people connected to it.”
Petrosian admitted she was shocked when receiving the initial email from the GLA.
“No one has ever done anything like this before,” she said, “and it was really touching. Any kind of recognition is really appreciated and is a great help. What they did, it was unexpected and we’re really, really grateful.”