Many cultures recognize something special and mystic happening from October 31 to November 2. Some say the veil between worlds is thinnest that time of year, so that the living can visit with the dead.
If you live in California, you’ve seen the decorated sugar skulls and figurines from the Latino holiday Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This tradition, mainly celebrated in Mexico, is a mixture of an old Aztec festival honoring Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld, and the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
San Diego is a prime place to observe Day of the Dead. “It’s very sacred, but also it’s fun,” says Devonna Almagro, executive director of the Sherman Heights Community Center, site of San Diego’s longest-running Day of the Dead festival. “We want to engage all cultures, all ages. And we make it fun. That’s why we have a festival.”
If you want to learn more about this colorful Latino tradition, don’t be shy. Whatever your cultural roots, you’re welcome at these San Diego festivities.
Old Town San Diego’s Dia de Los Muertos, Tuesday and Wednesday, November 1-2
The birthplace of San Diego, Old Town hosts the county’s biggest Day of the Dead party. This is a brilliant setting, as Old Town already has a Mexican Mercado feel and is full of historic buildings and Mexican restaurants. Organizers expect 75,000 participants this year, so think public transportation.
More than 40 local museums, shops and businesses will create altars for visitors to view. Altars will emphasize Old Town historic figures, as well as people personally known by the creators. You can add marigolds and photos of your own departed loved ones to a public altar. Visitors of all ages can learn to make paper flowers and masks, and paint their faces like skulls. Expect lots of noise, color and live entertainment. Everybody is invited to join the candlelight procession on November 2, which ends at El Campo Santo, a pioneer cemetery established in 1849.
Encinitas Dia de los Muertos, Saturday, October 29
The little surf town of Encinitas in San Diego’s North County is hosting a smaller, family-friendly Dia de los Muertos celebration. Its logo? A smiling skeleton clutching a surfboard. Visit the Encinitas Community Center on Saturday for a free afternoon of art, dancing and mariachi music. Dress up as La Calavera Catrina, the elegant grand dame of death, and enter the costume contest.
Escondido Dia de los Muertos, Tuesday, November 1
Escondido, in the inland valley, hosts the county’s second longest-running Day of the Dead celebration. This year’s 21st annual festival at the California Center for the Arts features some of the best entertainment. Tierra Caliente Academy of Arts is presenting Mexico… Vive Su Folklor, a production that combines theater, ballet folklórico, and live folk music to tell the history of Mexico. If your tastes run to the more contemporary, you might enjoy a concert by Mexrrissey. Because haven’t you always wondered what Smiths songs would sound like in Spanish with brass, accordion and a Latin beat? An area outside the arts center is available for guests to create altars celebrating their dearly departed.
Carrera de los Muertos San Diego, Sunday, October 30
Day of the Dead figurines depict skeletons engaged in ordinary activities, including cooking, sleeping and having sex. At the Carrera de los Muertos, you’ll see hundreds of skeletons running a 5K. Costumed runners will start and finish at Chicano Park, amidst Hispanic murals. The post-party includes mariachi music, dancing and Mexican food.
“While this race is a 5K, it’s really about community, culture and getting fit all together,” says Michelle Lindner, one of the race organizers who works for Generic Events in Santa Monica. “We do this by working with local artists for the award medals, t-shirt designs and posters. We also partner with local non-profits to create a greater sense of community.” This promises to be one of the best-looking costumed 5Ks with the coolest souvenir t-shirt.
Sherman Heights Día de los Muertos Celebration, October 4 – November 2
If you crave an authentic, neighborhood Day of the Dead, visit the Sherman Heights Community Center during its month-long schedule of events. Highlights include art workshops, a festival, a community breakfast with traditional foods, and the Noche de Mole opening night reception.
Last year, about 10,000 people visited the community center during the celebration, Almagro says, including guests from L.A., Orange County, Baja, Tijuana and Arizona. About 25 local families create altars inside the center. “The altars are very sacred. The families come in every other day to clean it up, and even add food and more things to it,” she says. Neighbors sometimes offer their front lawns to accommodate altar overflow.
Almagro says the most popular and meaningful part of the celebration is the community candlelight procession. “We encourage our guests to come dressed up, to bring pictures of their departed loved ones. They join us in the procession and they walk in their memory.” An Aztec dance group leads the procession of about 400 people from Sherman Heights down to Chicano Park in Barrio Logan. Along the way, the group stops to bless neighborhood altars.
During the two weeks of the community altar celebration, visitors are invited to drop in between 10 am and 7 pm. Volunteers are on hand to answer questions. If you want to arrange a special tour for your group, call 619-232-5181. “We feel very strongly that it’s important to educate folks about the meaning of the Day of Dead,” Almagro says. “More and more folks are open to what this means. It’s not about drinking and partying. It’s about remembering folks that have passed away. There are no borders. We’ve all experienced death within our families. This is a beautiful celebration that brings all ages and cultures together in remembering their loved ones who have passed away.”
Sidebar: Day of the Dead in L.A.
If you want to celebrate Dia de los Muertos closer to home, here are a few local events.
Carrera de los Muertos, Saturday, October 29 – 5K run finishing on Olvera Street.
17th annual Dia de los Muertos Festival, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Saturday, October 29 – Spanish-language recording stars like Julieta Venegas and Alejandro y Maria Laura, traditional Aztec blessings and dances, and more than 100 altars.
3rd Annual Olvera Street Muertos Art Walk, Saturday, October 15
This article is a part of the Celebrating Food & the Harvest 2016 issue of Whole Life Times.