In the 1970s, Chicano activists brought Mexican traditions honoring the dead to the United States. Decades later, skeletons and cemetery celebrations are the norm in some cities.
Everyday on Avenida César Chávez, a main corridor just east of the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles, unyielding commercial activity fills the popular district. But, nothing compares to El Día de los Muertos, a three-day celebration transported to the US via Mexican diasporans. Later, an ever-growing Central and South American Latin immigrant community expanded it.
Block after block on Cesar Chavez Avenue, intricate art and community ancestral altars decorate public and privately-owned spaces along the six-mile thoroughfare and its intersecting streets sprouting out of downtown Los Angeles. Passersby of storefronts and religious sites don face paintings designed as skeletons while women and girls wear colorful old-world, Spanish-style embroidered dresses.
Woven between food vendors and ad hoc street performances are crowds, mostly Latino, but certainly comprised of its visible share of Los Angeles’ diverse population of city goers. The colorfully decorated congregation overflows with children, though accented with senior citizens. It is indeed a family-centric holiday, that has become such a fixture in local culture, it heralds participants from all over the city.
Oooooo… This!!! 😍
Self Help Graphics & Art and LORE Media & Arts for a night of altars and offerings to honor the dead. View installations &, performances by Quetzal and Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company, traditional blessings led by the local indigenous community. pic.twitter.com/8tKPNZYsp9
— All Hallow’s Eva (@Eva_Tramell_) October 26, 2018
Este fin de semana, se reunirán familias y comunidades en Los Ángeles para celebrar el día de los muertos, y honrar las vidas de nuestros seres queridos que hemos perdido. Encuentra un evento cerca de ti. https://t.co/7mWclqa9Nz
— Mayor Eric Garcetti (@MayorOfLA) October 26, 2018
Old World in New Digs
Día de los Muertos, also called, Day of the Dead—its English translation—boasts a series of revelment remembering deceased family members and friends, in an intersection of indigenous traditions and colonial European influences.
Beginning on the pagan holiday, Halloween, followed by holy days of the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day, the fete honors life by acknowledging its symbiotic relationship of death. Aztec ceremonial traditions and fused with burial rituals of Catholicism allow for public discourses of morning and life celebration that moved from Latin American villages and towns to the cityscape.
We welcome the public to bring photos of their loved ones to place on our community altar located inside La Villita. pic.twitter.com/NUo2k0w9xE
— Dia de los Muertos (@muertosfest) October 28, 2018
— Voces Oral History (@VocesProject) October 27, 2018
Another integral activity are Aztec drumming and dancing along with cuisines retaining culture. Oftentimes, performances by multi-generational groups pass on cultural identity to migrant children who do not experience the holiday in their parents’ birthplace.
Politics and the Dead
Parades and prayer sessions are just part of continuous activities in Los Angeles and other Latino enclaves in the US. One of the more salient visuals is how the festival gives voice and visibility to politics and culture.
From honoring dead activists to commemorating victims of crises, like those of Mexico’s 2017 earthquake, Día de los Muertos, connects diasporans to homeland issues that sometimes, would lead to grave consequences if expressed in their country of origin.
As Día de los Muertos and the buying power of Latinos spread in the US, the holiday and its cultural accoutrements like skull heads and masks of the dead can be purchased in Target and Walmart. Now, the question to answer is how much will a tradition change as it evolves in the diaspora.