Graciela Vega ’93 Curates Art for Her Community

By Caitlin Muñoz ’26

An ofrenda from the Día de los Muertos exhibition curated by Graciela Vega '93

When Graciela Vega ’93 looks back on her time at Scripps College, some of her most vibrant memories involve her engagement in the arts. Reflecting on her current line of work, Vega credits the College’s art department for planting her artistic seed and allowing it to flourish.

In particular, Vega highlights faculty in the departments of Chicanx/Latinx studies and dance, through which she took courses in flamenco and folklórico, as professors who played a vital role in her development. “These courses and the dancing I did at Scripps allowed me to embrace my culture, and at the same time prepared me for the work I do now in my community,” she says.

In her hometown of Watsonville, California, Vega teaches art to more than 220 students at the local elementary school and leads two youth dance groups at the Watsonville Center for the Arts. Additionally, she is a primary curator and planner of Watsonville’s annual Día de los Muertos exhibition, a show entitled Mi Casa es Tu Casa.

In her time at Scripps, Vega also served on the student governing body Scripps Associated Students (SAS), which she says gave her the leadership tools necessary to successfully lead community projects such as Mi Casa es Tu Casa.

“The exhibition is a community effort, and that’s my leadership style,” Vega says. “I work in teams. I’m all right working by myself, but in a position of leadership I like to bring others in, and that’s something Scripps taught me early on. On SAS, we worked together as a group of sisters, and I think I bring that forward to my line of work.”

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday observed November 1–2 as a remembrance and celebration of the lives of passed loved ones. Día de los Muertos traditions notably include the construction of ofrendas (altars) dedicated to the deceased, which are laid with the loved one’s favorite foods, photos, Flor de Muerto (Flower of Dead) decorations, and memorabilia.

Vega says the theme of the 2022 Mi Casa es Tu Casa exhibition, La Vida Cambia, La Vida Continúa (Life Changes, Life Continues), will take on a mournful tone. Her team is curating a show featuring ofrendas dedicated to agricultural workers, people in the service industry, police officers, firefighters, nurses, and doctors.

“We’re remembering these workers because this pandemic has taken a toll on them,” Vega says. “We’re remembering the struggles of the past, and that life continues. There have been past years where the dedication was more joyful, but I think we’re all recovering collectively, as a community and on a global scale. We’re all trying to come out of this safer and more unified.”

Vega’s first opportunity to curate for Watsonville was 25 years ago, when she took on the Día de los Muertos show. Reflecting on the exhibition’s evolution, Vega cites greater community involvement as the most impactful change.

“I grew up in Watsonville, and 25 years ago when I first curated, we focused on more two-dimensional works and fewer ofrendas,” Vega said. “Now, the ofrendas have taken a life of their own. People want to remember their loved ones, so ofrendas have become the biggest part of the show.”

As the exhibition evolves with Watsonville, Vega hopes that the community will continue to value similar showcases of art and dance.

“There’s a woman on the Watsonville Arts Council who said that coming into the gallery as a child inspired her to go into the art field,” Vega says. “As nonprofits, we need to open these galleries and artistic spaces to children and families. We need to expose them to the arts, even if they will not become artists themselves. Eventually, they will be on boards that will fund the arts. They will be in positions of making donations to the arts, funding art workshops, or just appreciating art. We need more of that.”