CHERRYLAND — While all souls are welcome at the Meek Mansion for its first Days of the Dead exhibit, the walking and talking masses won't be the guests of honor.
That distinction goes to those who don't have a pulse and can't be seen — the historic 1869 Italianate Victorian has been decorated with scores of contemporary and traditional salutations and memorials to those no longer with us.
There are, of course, the familiar portraits and figurines of happy skeletons going about a day's labors, interpretations of the political cartoons of Jose Guadalupe Pasada, who popularized the skeletal figure, or calavera, in the early 20th century.
"You often see the contemporary expressions," said the exhibit's curator, Fernando Hernandez. "Catrina, the skeleton woman with the big fancy hat, she is the most recognizable."
But Hernandez stressed it's important to recognize that El Dia de los Muertos goes back much further than that. He dedicated one room of the mansion to the roots of the tradition, from pre-Colombian origins in Mesoamerica through Spanish colonization and the combining of the indigenous belief that death is part of life with the Catholic doctrine of the afterlife and eternal soul.
"It's an amalgamation of ancient tradition with All Souls' Day," said Myron Freedman, executive director of the Hayward Area Historical Society, which is hosting the Meek event.
"Halloween ... that's sort of the popular culture version. (Days of the Dead) comes out of Indian culture meeting up with Christian tradition and that's what I'm fascinated by."
The altars at the Meek Mansion not only reflect such changes over time, but also differ depending on where they hail from.
Take the tamales, for example. A popular food makes for a popular offering, but not all tamales are created the same. Central states use a corn husk, while banana leaves wrap a coastal tamale.
Such details are key to Hernandez, who says people will be able to recognize an altar symbolic of their particular state.
"Oh yeah, they would definitely be able to spot it," he said.
The other rooms of the mansion are filled with works of modern artists who take more liberties with interpretation but preserve the basic premise.
There's a salute to soldiers slain in Iraq, a wall posthumously honoring virtues and accomplishments of the nation's first ladies, and a leather-crafted tribute to four police officers slain in Oakland earlier this year that is as emotionally provocative as it is mind-numbingly intricate.
A large columbarium holds dozens of dioramas containing representations from the specific (a father's red wine and brandy snifters, a grandmother's tea set and lumps of sugar) to the topical (an elementary school's tribute to Michael Jackson) to the whimsical (a figurine for a beach-loving dog made entirely of surf wax) to the historical (honoring the 168 men who perished in the nation's worst metal-mining accident).
Carol Henrie's columbarium niche, "How to Say Goodbye," waxes philosophical. It's a subterranean view of a dead tree, brass gilded roots holding an underground bird's nest to symbolize life, and an old photo of the Angel of Death embracing a woman in a cemetery.
"It's organized around the notion of the cusp of seasons," Henrie said. "The wheel of the year teaches us to be open about what comes next."
The Oakland Museum of California usually hosts a Days of the Dead event, but this year a remodeling project made the space unavailable. Hernandez, who curated Oakland's exhibit last year, and Freedman were all too happy to step forward and offer the Meek mansion as an alternate space.
"There's a huge Hispanic culture here in the Hayward area," Freedman said. "It's important that Hayward is a place where people can see themselves going to see cultural events."