Runners start the San Fernando Mile on Oct. 28. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a special time for those who practice the sacred ritual to build an ofrenda or altar to honor their deceased loved ones. 

The holiday – with indigenous roots in Mesoamerica 3,000 years ago – views death as a present part of life, not to be feared but understood as a natural cycle of life. 

An Aztec dancer at the San Fernando Day of the Dead Festival on Oct. 28. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

As a means to convert native populations, the Catholic Church seemingly merged indigenous beliefs and rituals including Dia de los Muertos into the Catholic calendar for All Saints and All Souls Day on Nov. 1 and 2. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, attend the events now held in cemeteries including the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills where a priest goes one-by-one, blessing each erected altar. 

The ancient tradition continues to evolve. 

Over recent years, Dia de los Muertos, just like other Mexican holidays, has become commercialized with merchandise sold in stores and online, but in communities with large Mexican American populations, there is a focus for Dia de los Muertos to maintain cultural traditions.

Community events held in the Northeast San Fernando Valley are held on various dates leading up to the holiday and continue to grow.

Near the intersection of Third Street and Maclay Avenue on Oct. 28, the City of San Fernando held its annual Day of the Dead festival which uniquely begins with an early morning 5K run. One runner at the center at the start of the run dressed for the occasion wearing a rebozo and a crown of flowers.

Manny Velazquez, left, and Jose Velazquez, right, with their tribute to the late Mexican singer Vicente Fernández at the Día de los Muertos celebration at Pacoima City Hall on Oct. 28. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

This year, more than a dozen altars were created by members of the local community. As is tradition, they were adorned with cempasúchil – traditional bright orange marigolds, their loved one’s photos displayed at the center of the altar surrounded by meaningful personal items, sugar skulls, pan de muerto and the food and drinks they loved. 

At the same time, each altar was unique – expressing the lives of those departed.

“This is the altar we set up for everyone that’s important to us that’s passed on,” said Adam Cordova, describing the altar on display set up in the back trunk of his lowrider. “We put a little bit of everything that they used to like, you know, things that remind us of them. We have coffee, beer, little snacks, bread, everything. It’s kind of like an offering to them.”

This is the second year that Cordova and his wife, Joanna Hernandez, have celebrated Day of the Dead. Last year, they honored Hernandez’s cousin, Jessica, who passed away in 2019 from COVID-19. 

This year continued to be a very difficult time for Hernandez that she expressed through the altar she built.

“My dad just recently passed away about two months ago,” she said, holding back tears. Her father’s blue lowrider held his altar, which was also placed in the car’s trunk. “My sister was able to bring out his car, so being able to honor him … is really special.”

This was the first year at the city’s Day of the Dead celebration that cars were allowed inside the festival area. Cordova said the City contacted the organization Records & Rides, which has participated at other events including the San Fernando Outdoor Market.

The Linares Family

Ernie and Mary Linares took the opportunity to honor his sister, Michele, who passed away this year on Sept. 1.

“Her kids are here. My brother-in-law is here. We decided that we wanted to do this, to make it a family tradition and just not forget, you know. All these things here are things that remind us of her, … things that will bring her spirit closer to us,” Ernie said. “We know she’s never far, but [it’s] a way to kind of honor her.

“The City of San Fernando put this together and we’re happy to take part in it as a cultural tradition, but also as a family.”

Mary said that Michele was a speech language pathologist who had her own clinic and helped many people. Ernie said that she was someone who could make friends very easily. Near her portrait was a miniature tree – it’s branches held dozens of “memory tags” saved from people who attended her funeral and had written down their fondest memory of her. Ernie said it was just a sample of the large number of tags written by the 600 people who attended her funeral.

“She’s gone too soon, but her memory lives on,” Ernie said. “We want to give people an opportunity … to heal and grieve and celebrate because yes, it might be a physical loss, but her memory lives with us forever.”

Honoring Heroes

Others took the occasion to not only honor lost loved ones, but important figures in Chicano and Mexican history.

“The main one that we have right here on the altar would be Cesar Chavez and Joaquin Murrieta,” said Estela Ayala Sermeno. “But we also have Mexicano heroes like the Flores Magón brothers and Otto Vázquez Rojas.”

This year, she added a man of Palestinian descent, who Sermeno, 67, said was an admirer of Emiliano Zapata. She felt the desire to include him due to the Israeli-Hamas war and to highlight what she called the “Palestinian-Mexicano connection.”

“I wanted people to see that there is a connection,” Sermeno said. “As a matter of fact … in the Southwest, we believe our land was taken away and the Palestinian’s land was taken away. And of course, one country overpowered another country and marginalized us.”

The front of her altar held the images of notable Chicanos who’ve passed away, saving the upper portion for members of her own family members. Among them was her great-grandmother – Maria Lopez Negrete, who Sermeno said came to San Fernando from Mexico. She also included her grandmother and her ex-husband, who passed away during the pandemic. Sermano said she’s celebrated the holiday her whole life but has done it more actively for around 10 years.

“I feel very honored and privileged to be able to still be doing this,” Sermeno said. “I hope to be doing this for a long, long time. I hope that my grandchildren will learn the ways. … [It’s] so important to keep traditions and cultures alive, even after we pass.”

Dia de los Muertos Celebrated in Pacoima

San Fernando isn’t the only location in the northeast valley that holds an annual event. A little over two miles away, on Van Nuys Boulevard, another festival in front of Pacoima City Hall was enjoyed last weekend.

City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez at the Día de los Muertos celebration at Pacoima City Hall on Oct. 28. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

In addition to the numerous altars on display, the festival included a small zone for kids’ activities, a petting zoo, face painting for children with dozens of booths and vendors lining the street. And right out in front of Pacoima City Hall large scale papier-mâché calaveras – skeletons including one made in tribute to the beloved Mexican ranchera singer Vicente Fernández.

“I’ve been doing this for the past 25 years,” said Manny Velazquez, the artist who creates the impressive calacas –skeletonsand muñecasdollsthe Pacoima event is noted for. “The last seven, eight years have been here in Pacoima, down in Long Beach, Santa Monica, pretty much everywhere. But Pacoima is my backyard, so it’s always good to do something in your backyard, and everything you’ve seen here is [made with] passion and commitment to keeping our roots and culture alive.”

Elvira Higuers, left, and Margarita Lopez G., right, members of the North Hills East Neighborhood Council in front of their altar at the Día de los Muertos celebration at Pacoima City Hall on Oct. 28. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

He’s attended the Day of the Dead festivals in Pacoima since it began, watching it grow from inside the courtyard to spreading into the street for a few blocks. He collaborates with his brother, Jose, who handles the logistics of Velazquez’s designs.

In addition, he creates his own ofrenda, with the photos of his classmates from San Fernando High School adhered to the outside of pillared glass candles. Next to his altar, Velazquez also had two papier-mâché skulls: one in tribute to painter Frida Kahlo, who Velazquez said reminds him of his mother, and another in honor of his grandson, who lived to the age of 23 – who he noted was a blessing as he was initially given only six years to live when an infant.

City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez at the Día de los Muertos celebration at Pacoima City Hall on Oct. 28. (SFVS/el Sol Photo/Semantha Raquel Norris)

“I just keep his memory alive,” Velazquez said. “So this is the event that allows [for] that healing, letting go, accepting that he’s physically not here, but he’s here [spiritually].” 

Now an art teacher at Panorama High School, Velazquez pushes others to express themselves through art and to pass that along to future generations.

“This is our roots and culture. It was handed down to us. I’m just continuing the tradition by giving it to somebody else.”

Semantha Raquel Norris contributed to this story.