On display and for sale at Olvera Street.

Celebrating the Day of the Dead

Today is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. I have never really celebrated this holiday, even though I have long had a fascination with the rituals and the history behind this tradition.

Day of the Dead isn’t about a morbid fascination of death or the dead. It’s a time when families in many Latin American countries, and in some parts of the U.S., celebrate the memories of loved ones who have passed on.  Legend has it that on this day, the “veil” between this life and the after life is thinned, to allow the spirits of our loved ancestors to come back.  In Mexico, families gather at the gravesites of departed family members, cleaning headstones, decorating the graves, and picnicking as they tell stories, sing songs and reminisce with fondness their departed family members. Many families build altars in their homes, adorned with photos of the deceased, and offerings of favorite foods or momentos. The altar typically has other elements which symbolize the four elements of nature: air as represented by the decorative cut paper banner (papel picado), earth as represented by food, fire as represented by the altar candles, and water.

About 20 years ago, when I was in a Mexican folk dancing group, I became friends with several people who celebrated this tradition.  One year, we drove all over the Los Angeles area looking for celebrations and exhibits commemorating Day of Dead. We didn’t find too many. Recently, though, it seems you can’t go anywhere in the Los Angelesarea without running into the celebrations. Last year I went to one of the biggest celebrations in Los Angeles, held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetary. I blogged about that here. Yesterday,  I went to a local supermarket which is part of a major grocery chain, and I found a pan de muerto.  I was surprised to see this sold at the supermarket, so I had to buy it.

A sweet bread mad in the shape of bodies or decorated with shapes to resemble bones.

Today, leaving my downtown LA office I ran into someone wearing full-face make-up like a skull. No doubt, she was there to participate in the Olvera Street festival. Olvera Street is a kind of touristy, but fun, Mexican market place. I went for a walk over there yesterday during my lunch hour and the  place was filled with candy and colorful ceramic skulls, (calaveras), paper flowers, papel picado and the smell of marigolds.

On display and for sale at Olvera Street.

I love that this holiday is becoming more widely known.I think the colors and the pageantry and the rituals behind the day should be celebrated by all those who wish to participate.

This year I decided I wanted to celebrate with my family, both living and departed, so, we built altar in our family room. Here’s a photo of my altar. It includes pictures of several of our grandparents. Since we are a blended family, our altar probably honored more grandparents than the typical altar.

There are some momentos for Olivia and Erica’s maternal grandmother, Grandma Lupe.  She loved Elvis and was quite artistic

There’s a photo of Nico’s paternal grandfather, and there’s photos of both of my grandparents, and photos of my cousin and her parents.


Juan added a photo of his maternal grandparents, and their favorite “cafecito.” There’s a memory of our loved dog, Mischief.  We also added the typical offerings of pan de muerto and flowers, and a calavera.  The water is held in a favorite glass, which was one of a set belonging to my grandmother. The shawls, or rebozos, which were used as drapes on the altar were given to me by my grandmother too. Even though we may not get an actual visit from any of our departed relatives this evening, the act of creating the altar helped to remind us of the all those we love and miss, and that is what the Dia de los Muertos is all about.

El Dia de Los Muertos

Today is El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This is a holiday typically celebrated in Mexico, which commemorates the lives of family members who have died. I really like this holiday, but because it falls on the day after Halloween I usually am experiencing such a sugar crash that I can’t seem to get enough energy to do much to participate in all the festivities.

I first became interested in celebrating Dia de los Muertos about 15 years ago, when a good friend of mine who was also Latina, and an artist, would dress up as Caterina Calavera and attend festivals. We would drive all over southern California looking for festivals. There were a few places we would go, but the festivals were not big celebrations. They often felt like well-kept secrets, that only a few artists and others in the community knew about. Times have certainly changed. This year there are several festivals in my area. I actually had to choose which one I could attend. So I chose to go to one of the more popular events in Los Angeles. It was the Dia de los Muertos festival held at the Hollywood cemetery. It was quite an event. There were all kinds of arts and crafts, face painting, costumed and made up festival goers, food, music and of course,  altars.

The altars were works of art. There were so many different types of altars, built to celebrate the lives of loved ones.  On the altars there were the offerings of favorite foods, drinks,  and other typical items symbolic of the holiday.  There were marigolds, the strong scent which is thought to help the dead find their way to visit the living, bread in the shape of human or animal forms (pan de muerto), and photos of the departed. This holiday, which some may consider a bit morbid, is actually quite happy. It is a time when family members gather to celebrate the lives of their departed loved ones. I felt that joy too, as I looked at the altars and spoke to the artists who had created them.  I took several pictures, but the photos do not truly capture the uniqueness of this holiday and the beauty of the festival.

There were several elaborate altars, but those I  enjoyed the most were those with a personal significance. One altar I especially liked was created by several family members who lived in different states. They came together to create a large, beautiful altar which had photos of all their ancestors, and the matriarch of their family, a great-grandmother who had died on November 2. It was amazing to see this large group of family members, dressed up and made up as calaveras (skeletons) eating and drinking and playing music as they sat beside the altar. As they celebrated the life of a woman who had died several years ago, it was not difficult to feel her presence among the living. This is what Dia de los Muertos is all about.

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