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.