Margo Gallagher didn't grow up with the Mexican tradition of El Dia de los Muertos.
"I had never heard of it," the 56-year-old community volunteer from Petaluma said. "My married name is Irish, but my family background is Russian and Jewish."
But like growing numbers of people from a variety of cultures, she has found solace in honoring lost family members and friends on the "Day of the Dead."
As proof of the celebration's growing diversity, Israel Escudero, one of the organizers of Petaluma's annual Dia de las Muertos observance, cites the array of languages used in written messages left on the altars honoring the dead.
"We have Chinese and French messages, and a lot in Portuguese," Escudero said.
Escudero, 40, grew up in Mexico City with a father who used Dia de los Muertos to remember his own parents, who died long before the grandchildren were born.
"That was the only way I knew my grandparents. We knew the first tamales that came out of the pot were the for the altar, because those were their favorite food," Escudero said. "It's my favorite holiday, bigger than Christmas."
Traditionally, children who have died are honored Nov. 1 and deceased adults on Nov. 2, with often humorous displays of the departed's favorite food and drink, sugar skulls and colorfully costumed skeletons, Escudero explained.
Gallagher came to embrace Dia de los Muertos via a very different route, through devastating personal loss, and found in the Mexican tradition a pathway from grief to peace.
In 2001, Gallagher's mother, Maxine Myers of Santa Cruz, died of breast cancer. Later the same year, Gallagher's husband, Dennis Gallagher, a San Francisco firefighter, died of a heart attack at age 47.
In 2003, Gallagher's son Aaron, from a previous marriage, died at age 18 after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis.
"I was so distraught that it took me five or six years to get my feet back on the ground. The grief took me down to a point where I didn't know if I could come back," Gallagher said.
"Then one year, I took a walk through downtown Petaluma, and saw all of the Day of the Dead altars in store windows," she remembered. "I didn't get it at first, but then I thought it was a cool way of remembering people who had died."
Gallagher volunteered to work on Petaluma's annual celebration of the holiday and became one of its leaders, overseeing some 800 community altars installed throughout the downtown area each year by community members.
"Through my involvement with El Dia de los Muertos and the people who put this event together, I have learned that even though my son died, he doesn't have to be forgotten," she said. "I want people to know who he was. My altar has a model train he loved."
Through her own altar displays, laden with photographs, collages and mementos, she shares her memories, not only with the community at large, but also with her two surviving sons: Daniel, 17, a senior at Petaluma High School, and James, 20, currently studying at the University of Granada in Spain.
"They're alive, and they're wonderful," she said of her sons.
In addition to downtown Petaluma altars, there are Dia de los Muertos displays at both the Petaluma Arts Center and the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa.
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