While many Dia de los Muertos (Day Of The Dead) events have fallen victim to commercialization, in the City of San Fernando the event focuses on education and maintaining the holiday’s custom to honor loved ones.
This year’s event at San Fernando Recreation Park drew its largest crowd yet with organizers estimating the crowd at more than 700 people. The Northeast Valley was the first to hold the cultural festival in the San Fernando valley. It was first held at Brand Park then at the Pico Adobe, the San Fernando Station and — over most recent years — at San Fernando Recreation Park.
The park was filled with the smell of incense and copal and orange marigolds that was placed on family altars throughout the park. Two large art panels painted by local artist Lalo Garcia was the backdrop for the stage and the adjacent sidewalk was turned into a concrete gallery of chalk art.
“This was an amazing day,” said Cultural Affairs Director Virginia Diediker. “Even though there were so many people here at the park, it was very calm and peaceful and fitting for this holiday.”
Lines of children and their parents not only made art, they learned about the holiday by working with volunteer teachers and artists who explained to them why they paint their faces or make sugar skulls.
“It’s more than entertainment, it’s a cultural tradition that we are passing on from one generation to the next,” said Javier Verdin, Master of Ceremonies.
“It’s important that people know how important the holiday is and it’s disappointing when people confuse it with Halloween,” he said. “Even though they are so close together on the calendar,” added Verdin. As he introduced each group on stage he shared a bit of cultural history.
Verdin and others are concerned that as more and more Dia de los Muertos events pop up, the meaning and tradition can become marred.
“This cultural holiday is in fact completely opposite of Halloween, it’s not scary. we believe that death is a natural part of life and our ancestors should be celebrated, honored and remembered on this day, so while it’s a reverent day, but we enjoy getting together with our friends and family and even also have fun and poke a little fun at death,” Verdin said.
The San Fernando event is praised for being a community event that works to keep true to traditions and showcases homegrown talent.
“Each year we receive more requests from families who want to build altars, and we have a wonderful group of volunteers who really help the day to run smoothly. We are growing and as we grow we are finding more vendors, non profit organizations, musicians and visual artists who want to join us,” Diediker said.
This year the local tribe, The Fernandeno Tataviam Tribe of Mission Indians and, two Aztec dance troupes offered traditional blessings. The Danza Mexica Cuautemoc provided a JAM session in conjunction with the Ford Theater. Members of the crowd were invited to learn basic steps and also learned about the relationship between Aztec dance and geometry.
Artists from Tia Chucha’s Cultural Bookstore provided music and spoken word and displayed Dia de los Muertos children’s books.
One new addition this year was the inclusion of a walkway of chalk art to honor victims of HIV/AIDS. “San Fernando received a champion group of artists who came out for this event,” said Juliana Martinez who facilitated the new component.”
The theme was interpreted by the artists with various images and
Student artists from the César Chavez Academy LGBTQ Cub also participated in the chalk memorial.
In addition to Ballet Folklorico Ollin and the young musicians from Mariachi Tesoro and Bienestar, the San Fernando Cultural Arts Collective also participated.
“I think that this year’s event has grown tremendously from last year and I loved having the chalk artist component. Our arts and crafts area also expanded,” Diediker said.
“It serves to express the traditions from our community and a place where children are exposed to both culture and art.”
There were numerous children’s activities, including traditional face painting, while families gathered and set up altars to their relatives who had passed away.
The Chairez family from Panorama City built a family altar under a large canopy. They brought food, and told stories and memories about those on the altar.
“We are doing exactly what our loved ones who have passed away would be doing, we are enjoying our time together,” noted Jennifer Chairez. One of the family members who had passed away was a 17-year-old who was targeted by gang members. “Too many families are like ours, who have young people on their altars who were killed at the hands of gang violence,” Jennifer said.
For the Chairez family and many others, it is important not to forget their family members or the circumstances of their death. They point out that as new people are born into their family, they hear stories about those relatives that came before them.
“Art and culture is a center for our community,” Diediker said. “Traditions are important. So many artists came and because art is such a center of our community, we are finding those who were once students now coming back as art leaders.
“One of our former students, Monique Orozco from Ballet Folklorico Ollin, is now a director of danza, one of the Aztec dance troupes. As our students are growing up they are coming back as teachers and giving back to the community. This year’s event was beautiful,” Diediker said.