If anyone can attest to the adage that death is a part of life, it's Esmeralda Prieto; she's been living it for the past seven years. Before Prieto turned 30, her older brother and mother both died untimely deaths. Within a four-year period, she'd lost half of her family and was left to care for her 15-year-old brother, who suffers from autism and can barely speak.
Prieto, 32, is a makeup artist known for her Dia de los Muertos designs. Fall is her busy season because of the Nov. 2 holiday; in the time leading up, she's either spending long hours painting faces, producing how-to videos for YouTube, making sugar-skull jewelry to sell on Etsy or working at San Diego's paranormal hotbed, the Whaley House, where she dresses in full, historical costume once a week, leads tours of the allegedly haunted grounds and has the occasional brush with the undead.
"I'm going to go hang out in a graveyard tomorrow!" Prieto says, laughing. It's her first year on the Day of the Dead committee as an employee of the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), and she's tasked with setting up shrines in the El Campo Santo cemetery as part of a two-day celebration in Old Town that organizers expect to draw crowds of 15,000 to 20,000 people on Nov. 1 and 2.
With so much death surrounding her, you'd think she'd avoid the topic—let alone cemeteries—if she had to choose. Ironically, she's found peace in her work and even has a sense of humor about life and death. But from the sound of it, she's just doing what her brother, who was active in San Diego's graffiti scene, and her mother would have wanted.
Halloween was something the whole family got into; Prieto's uncle would sew ornate capes out of bed sheets, she says, decorating them with fake spiders and whatever else was around. The holiday was her mother's favorite.
"This is my favorite time of year because I really love reconnecting with my past and my childhood," she says. "Dia de los Muertos is a great time to reflect back on the good times you've had with family members and loved ones. It helps people with mourning and issues we have with losing someone."
Once a street artist, abstract painter and DJ in San Diego's club scene, Prieto, who also goes by "Ocean," needed to find a way to work from home so she could care for her brother. After discovering the world of self-makeup-application videos on YouTube, she decided to give it a try.
Prieto says that making videos came naturally. She was already crafty and had painting skills, thanks to her older brother, known as Peng One, whom she idolized. An unexpected discovery for Prieto was that putting on makeup gave her spirits a much-needed lift.
"I felt depressed and not very pretty," she recalls. "So I began taking on this new medium: makeup. And I fell head over heels in love with it. It would help me not think about any of the things I was going through, and focus on something pretty, on something other than what I was feeling."
Despite having no experience, she believed she could execute these videos as well as, if not better than, the online "gurus," as they're called, who were doing it. The turning point came in 2010, when Prieto recorded herself for six hours as she created a Dia de los Muertos, full-faced skeleton design to commemorate her brother's and mother's deaths.
"I put all of my heart into it," she says. "It's the video I have the most views on. It's great to know that people appreciate it."
Watching the video, it's easy to understand why she's become known as a Day of the Dead makeup artist. With the somber, and at times triumphant, horns in Beirut's March of the Zapotec EP as a backdrop, a clean-faced Prieto proceeds to draw on herself with swift, confident movements. She goes through her various steps, layering patterns with paint, powders, glitter and gemstones. She makes it look easy; her graceful cadence is mesmerizing.
Prieto's ceremonious tribute led her to create her truest, most honest artwork. She says the video is where she discovered her love for creating Mexican-folk-art-inspired designs, and whether you know her back-story or not, it's a powerful eight minutes to witness.
Prieto worked hard at marketing herself and monetizing her videos through Google AdSense. The invaluable part of the experience for her is that the online community appreciates her work: Supportive comments pulled her through depression. She found an outlet to keep from losing herself after having so much taken away. She's been able to land gigs from the site, too, and makeup companies send her free products to use and review, sustaining her business with supplies and materials. In just a couple years, her videos (youtube.com/venusocean) have a combined total of more than 1 million views.
When Prieto's mother died—Prieto declined to discuss the details of the sudden deaths in her family—she wanted to get away from her childhood home of Linda Vista. So, she and her brother moved to Pacific Beach. But last year, she says, something called her back.
The phone rang, and it was a woman at the Whaley House Museum Shop who'd found her through Etsy, proposing that she sell her sugar-skull jewelry in the shop. The woman had also seen Prieto's Dia de los Muertos videos, and when she realized the jewelry designer was also the makeup artist, Whaley House offered her a job.
Coincidentally—or not—Prieto found herself back at the place whose history she memorized as a kid.
"I always felt a connection to the house and the family," she says, adding that she shares a birthday with Thomas Whaley. "I feel like home when I go to work every day. It's nice to work for a company that appreciates what I do and has given me so many opportunities to share my art with San Diego."
Now, Prieto gets paid to educate people about Dia de los Muertos through arts-and-crafts workshops with SOHO. What she enjoys most, though, is helping change the perception of the holiday.
"A lot of people take it as being morbid. They don't see the bright and colorful side of it, which is honoring life and death," she explains. "It's basically teaching people that they can be OK with death, because it's a part of life. That's what I try to portray when I do my face painting."