San Antonio gallerist’s ofrenda pays homage to Afro-Latino heritage

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SAN ANTONIO — As a child, Maria Williams enjoyed watching her mother throw an ofrenda in honor of their ancestors on Día de los Muertos — Day of the Dead. For the past 26 years, Williams has taken the same care to honor her late mother, Hilda Delorse, and her deceased family members.

Recently, artists from the community helped Williams build her altar at the In the Eye of the Beholder art gallery that showcases art by black artists. Williams founded the gallery at 1917 N. New Braunfels Ave., near Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.

Today she will plate the ofrenda with her mother’s favorite breakfast – fresh French bread, a slice of butter, cheddar and a cup of strong coffee – to feed the matriarch after her trip from the land of the spirits.

The meal will rest next to a framed photo of Williams’ mother, who enjoyed a life that was unpromised. In October 1928, on a boat from Barbados off the coast of Cuba, the midwife believed she was stillborn. They swaddled the baby in a blanket, ready to bury her at sea, until the midwife saw her move. Her parents named her Delorse, a variant of the Spanish word for pain. The offense is just one of the ways Williams pays tribute to his mother, who learned to deal with discrimination after arriving in the United States and raised her five children to be proud of their heritage. .

The San Antonio artist, Claudette Hopkins’ parents, Felix and Thelma Farrow, left, and her husband, John, are part of an altar at the Eye of the Beholder Art Gallery on Friday. Maria Williams, owner of the gallery, remembers her childhood when her mother observed Dia de los Muertos by building an altar in honor of their Cuban and Panamanian ancestors. After her mother’s death, Williams continued the tradition, infusing the altars with symbols of her Afro-Latin heritage.

Jerry Lara, Staff/San Antonio Express-News

“It’s part of my Afro-Latino culture,” Williams, 56, said. “It celebrates our ancestors. In some ways, they’re still with us. I’ve seen my mother in the corner or on my shoulder. It’s a way for me to say, ‘Yes, I see you, and I celebrate still who you are.’ ”

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The Williams Altar is one of many diverse celebrations that will be displayed across the country this week to celebrate All Saints Day and All Saints Day on the Catholic calendar. Día de los Muertos is a tradition that began centuries ago in Mexico. Other countries and cultures have incorporated it into their celebration of the spiritual holiday.

San Antonio is known for having one of the largest Day of the Dead celebrations, including festivals, SpiritLandia, a San Antonio River Parade, and community events.

Maria Williams, owner of the In the Eye of the Beholder art gallery, right, places a photo of Claudette Hopkins' husband on an altar on Friday.  Hopkins is in the background.  Williams recalls her childhood when her mother observed Dia de los Muertos by building an altar to honor their Cuban and Panamanian ancestors.  After her mother's death, Williams continued the tradition, infusing the altars with symbols of her Afro-Latin heritage.

Maria Williams, owner of the In the Eye of the Beholder art gallery, right, places a photo of Claudette Hopkins’ husband on an altar on Friday. Hopkins is in the background. Williams recalls her childhood when her mother observed Dia de los Muertos by building an altar to honor their Cuban and Panamanian ancestors. After her mother’s death, Williams continued the tradition, infusing the altars with symbols of her Afro-Latin heritage.

Jerry Lara, Staff/San Antonio Express-News

Williams’ ofrenda is a little different from the one her mother kept in her home. Yet she said that the image of Mary the Blessed Mother remains the crowning glory of the two altars.

The three tiers of the glass display stand are lined with flower petals, votive candles and photographs of loved ones. On the first tier, Williams sat a framed photo of her maternal grandmother, Gertrude Maude Thompson, in the corner across from her mother. From Barbados, Thompson and her husband sought work in Cuba before moving to Panama.

Williams said both of her grandfathers helped build the Panama Canal.

She also plans to commemorate her late older brother, Clifton B. Hazelwood Jr., the comedic glue who held the family together through trials and tribulations.

Three artists from the gallery have arranged keepsakes of loved ones on two tables draped in purple linens at the sides of the altar. Williams added her own style with red roses in black mugs that anchored banners with the words “We’ll always remember you.”

On Friday, muralist Joseph Ramey works on an altar at the Eye of the Beholder art gallery.  Maria Williams, owner of the gallery, remembers her childhood when her mother observed Dia de los Muertos by building an altar in honor of their Cuban and Panamanian ancestors.  After her mother's death, Williams continued the tradition, infusing the altars with symbols of her Afro-Latin heritage.

On Friday, muralist Joseph Ramey works on an altar at the Eye of the Beholder art gallery. Maria Williams, owner of the gallery, remembers her childhood when her mother observed Dia de los Muertos by building an altar in honor of their Cuban and Panamanian ancestors. After her mother’s death, Williams continued the tradition, infusing the altars with symbols of her Afro-Latin heritage.

Jerry Lara, Staff/San Antonio Express-News

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Photos of the artist’s loved ones Claudette Hopkins also adorned the exhibit. A photo of her late grandson in a graduation cap and gown sat on the table to the left, near photos of her parents and husband on the second floor. Muralist Joseph Ramey honored the memory of his late grandparents with keepsakes. He placed a stem from his grandmother’s rosebush next to his grandfather’s pocket watch in front of their portraits.

Hoi Ellis, 54, included a photo of his grandmother Charles Anderson. His paternal grandfather decreed that the next born child, girl or boy, would bear his name. Inches away is a photo of his grandfather Waymon Anderson. He left a wooden shoehorn and a cigar to his stepfather, Kenneth Byron, a New Yorker who Ellis said had served in the Army Air Corps. It was Ellis’ first time participating in the tradition. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but Williams’ research and explanation cleared it all up.

“Now he understands,” Williams said. “What we do is celebrate their lives.”

A photograph of Joseph O'Pella, grandfather of muralist Joseph Ramey, is seen on an altar at the Eye of the Beholder art gallery on Friday.  Maria Williams, owner of the gallery, remembers her childhood when her mother observed Dia de los Muertos by building an altar in honor of their Cuban and Panamanian ancestors.  After her mother's death, Williams continued the tradition, infusing the altars with symbols of her Afro-Latin heritage.

A photograph of Joseph O’Pella, grandfather of muralist Joseph Ramey, is seen on an altar at the Eye of the Beholder art gallery on Friday. Maria Williams, owner of the gallery, remembers her childhood when her mother observed Dia de los Muertos by building an altar in honor of their Cuban and Panamanian ancestors. After her mother’s death, Williams continued the tradition, infusing the altars with symbols of her Afro-Latin heritage.

Jerry Lara, Staff/San Antonio Express-News

“It’s more about acknowledging their presence on Earth,” Ellis said.

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This morning, Williams will add the finishing touches to his ofrenda. She will pour cool water into a glass bottle for the spirits to quench their thirst. She will add a bouquet of fragrant marigold flowers and light candles to guide the path of souls. She will lay out ginger cookies and a small glass of rum for her grandmother. And she will fill a glass of red wine for her mother, whom she loved very much and continues to carry in her heart.

“It’s important,” Williams said. “These are rich traditions that have been passed down. It helps you know who you are and makes you feel like you are.

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