Dia de los Muertos utilizes sugar skulls, people dress up as calacas (skeletons) and at the center of the activity, altars are built to hold photos and items that have meaning for loved ones who have departed. Altars often hold favorite foods and drinks, sugar skulls and the bread of the season, called “pan de muerto”.
But contrary to what is currently going on in retail outlets and at large scale events, this cultural practice shouldn’t be lumped in with Halloween with its ghoulish and macabre costumes and decorations intended to frighten passersby, Dia de los Muertos is quite the opposite.
Dia de los Muertos accepts death as a natural cycle of life that isn’t to be feared but understood as a passage to what is viewed as another state of being. This tradition is believed to keep family members close and part of our lives even if they are no longer in the physical world. It can even be a joyous time when jokes are poked about death
The tradition with its indigenous roots was first appropriated by the Catholic Church which saw it as an opportunity to merge the tradition into the Catholic calendar which would help to recruit native people into the church. Dia de los Muertos then became a fusion with the holiday celebrated on November 1, the Day of Innocence when Children who have passed are honored and on November 2, All Souls Day for all others. Old and New World traditions have long crossed the border and is now a permanent fixture in L.A., throughout the San Fernando Valley and across the United States.
The holiday is continuing to evolve and has grown to such large scale street festivals with massive events that have become parties held in cemeteries. Hollywood Forever has such a large sized “event” that it has caused many to question whether the core tradition to honor loved ones is lost to sales of Dia de los Muertos “merchandise”, the loud noise of their hired bands on several sound stages with thousands trampling upon the graves of those buried there. Retail outlets have also jumped in. The 99 Cent store, Target and other large retailers have had an Dia de los Muertos merchandise of every kind available for sale weeks prior.
No matter what side of the valley you find yourself in, whether it’s Canoga Park, Northridge, Pacoima, San Fernando and many other areas in between, this weekend there is an opportunity to attend a Dia de Los Muertos community event.
In Pacoima, at Pacoima City Hall (13520 Van Nuys Boulevard, 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 27) the event begins with the movie “Book of Life”, a Hollywood version of Dia de los Muertos. Residents along with area artists will set up altars, display art and there will be crafts for the whole family to enjoy on Saturday and art and for music the rest of the weekend, along with kids’ activities. On Sunday, there will be a Menudo cook off starting at noon. This event promises to be bigger than in the past, spilling out of Pacoima City Hall and onto Van Nuys Boulevard. For details, visit www.pacoimadayofthedead.com.
The City of San Fernando has its own event, that begins early Saturday morning, Oct. 28, with a Dia de los Muertos 5K Relay Walk or Run, as part of the city’s Healthy Families campaign. Providence Holy Cross Medical Center is a sponsor. There will be an art exhibit including a unique public art exhibit. Artists will begin early in the morning to work on large scale “Chalk Art” on the sidewalks outside of the recreational center.
Residents will build family altars throughout the park area and entertainment will be offered throughout the day including a performance by Ballet Folklorico Ollin. There will be free face painting provided and a Dia de los
Muertos ceremony with Aztec dancers who will lead a dusk procession. Everything takes place at San Fernando Recreation Park, 208 Park Avenue, in the City of San Fernando. For more information, visit www.sfcity.org
The construction of altars can take many forms and shapes, but it must contain four essential elements of nature: earth, wind, water and fire. Earth may be the clay bowls filled with fruits or corn. The wind is oftentimes represented by the papel picado (paper cut in artful shapes), the water is to quench the thirst of the souls that visit after a long journey from the other side, and the fire may be symbolized by candles that guide the soul. Salt, copal (incense) and cempazuchtl flower (marigolds) should also be included to bring your loved one back for a “visit.”
Muralist and artist Manny Velasquez, art curator for the event at Pacoima City Hall noted some of the art history connected to Dia de los Muertos including the creation of La Calavera Catrina first created by the famous printmaker and cartoon illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada. “They [artists] were portraying the rich and powerful with calaveras (skeletons) and big hats and fancy dresses,”
Posada’s “Catrina” made fun of the oligarchy and their decadent excesses have become a major symbol for Dia de los Muertos.
“The ‘Catrina’ – a female skeleton wearing a luxurious hat and dress – was incorporated in the late 19th and early 20th Century helped to “educate the people who were illiterate about what was happening during their time,” Velasquez noted.
Present day altars, said Valasquez, do provide not only a remembrance and a homage to loved ones who have gone to the other side, but also as a way of healing.
He invites anyone to contribute items to community altars that will be set up at Pacoima City Hall to acknowlege victims of domestic and gang violence and teenagers killed while driving under the influence. Building altars together, he said, becomes a communal experience of meeting and healing for everybody.
“We’re opening the doors to everybody because these are things that affect us all in one form or another,” Velasquez said. “You learn that you’re not the only one that’s suffering because you lost somebody,” he said.
As events grow huge and some altars resemble commercial props; the center of the tradition to honor the spirit of a loved one is maintained with a true heart, whether at a public community event or in a private corner of your home.