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Exhibit celebrates life on day of the dead

Nobody mourns on the Day of the Dead.

In his native Mexico, Ruben Trejo would have spent today at his grandmother’s grave, praying the rosary and listening to mariachi music. He would’ve decorated her gravestone with magnolias, offered her spirit cookies, candy and other favorite foods.

This year, the Spokane artist will celebrate El Dia de los Muertos in town with altars dedicated to three new souls: Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Gianni Versace.

The shrines, on display today at Cheney Cowles Museum, immediately catch your eye: headless Barbie dolls dressed in chic designer suits; Diana’s smiling face on the cover of the German magazine Der Spiegel; a velvet-draped altar adorned with photos of Versace and his supposed killer, Andrew Cunanan.

The exhibit, the first of its kind at the museum, is both sacred and irreverent, light-hearted and grave, said Barbara Loste, a Spanish professor at Eastern Washington University and one of seven people who helped install the display.

“That’s what life is about, these huge contradictions,” said Loste, who makes an altar in her own home every year. While the show may offend some, it embodies the mood of the holiday, Trejo said.

“It’s really a celebration of life,” said Trejo, an art instructor at Eastern. “It has a sense of humor. … You swallow death, so when it does come, it doesn’t bother you. You squash that fear of death and enjoy living.”

One of Mexico’s most colorful feasts, El Dia de los Muertos combines the Roman Catholic observance of All Saints Day with ancient Indian customs of offering food, cigars and tequila to the souls of dead friends and relatives.

It’s a rite honored by city people and country peasants. While some attend Mass, most Mexicans light candles and spend the night in cemeteries.

That’s what Trejo would have done in his hometown of Ixtlan, a small city in the state of Michoacan. There, people feel very close to the earth and tradition, he said. Like their Indian ancestors, they sense this connection with the souls of the past.

Some may call it superstitious, but Trejo said he’s being practical. You don’t really know whether or not the spirits come back, he said. He prefers to believe they do.

“(The holiday) makes me happy because when I die, I won’t be alone,” Trejo said. “The living won’t leave you alone.”

Trejo, 60, is just over 5 feet tall with dark skin and a long, white Socrates-like beard. He speaks quickly, his voice rising with excitement as he explained the meaning behind each altar.

The one in honor of Mother Teresa sports all kinds of kitschy items: a ceramic bust of Jesus, an old black-and-white photo of Trejo’s family, bronze crucifixes with bent 4-inch nails. Surrounded by silk flowers and two pieces of wood in the shape and color of sliced watermelon, the center of the altar contains three identical photos of the Polish nun in India. Several rows of votive candles decorate the foot of the shrine.

Princess Diana’s altar features a dangling roll of film to symbolize the paparazzi and an empty wine bottle for her drunken chauffeur. Mexican items, including dressed-up skeletons and a lace backdrop, enhance the display.

The process of making the shrines is slow and meditative, said Loste, who has built altars in memory of Jerry Garcia, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

And you don’t have to be from Mexico to appreciate the art and understand the holiday, Trejo said. Life and death are universal themes.

“It’s not all macabre,” he said. “One of our worst fears is dying. But how can you truly live when you’re afraid?”