Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana

Dia de Muertos: what it is and how to experience it in Los Angeles

Mexico was one of the first destinations that I went to for the purposes of travel work shortly after I photographed my first assignment for a travel writer. Everything felt new and full of possibility for my career pivot. Perhaps because of that, Mexico will always hold a special place in my heart. As will its traditions. Like Day of the Dead or Dia de Muertos. I fell hard for this particular tradition after moving to Los Angeles in 2018.

What is Dia de Muertos? 

Day of the Dead is the English translation of El Día de los Muertos or Día de los Muertos. From what I understand via friends who live in Mexico, it should just be called Día de Muertos. Exactly what to call it seems a very divisive issue online. Regardless of the exact title, Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday that celebrates and honors deceased loved ones. In Mexico, the celebration is held from October 31 to November 2nd, coinciding with the Catholic feast days of All Saints and All Souls… [source: TripSavvy] One of the most important parts of the holiday is the building of altars to represent and remember loved ones who have died. As Danté says in his post

Unlike other religions, they considered mourning of the dead disrespectful and viewed death as a natural step in life’s continuum. They believed the dead were still members of the community and kept their loved ones alive in memory and in spirit. During Día de Los Muertos, the dead temporarily return to earth and the festival celebrates love and respect for deceased family members, and allows the living to make offerings to their lost loved ones.

The holiday also features marigolds or flor de muerto. Often the monarch butterfly is shown in Day of the Dead imagery. There are depictions of Calaveras, which remind us of the transitory nature of life, that our time here on Earth is limited, and that it’s acceptable (and maybe even desirable) to play and poke fun at ideas about death. [source: TripSavvy] Also popular are representations of la Catrina.

Who is La Catrina?

Many women who now dress up to take part in Día de Muertos are knowingly or unknowingly dressing as La Catrina. But who is she and how has she become synonymous with Day of the Dead? I like this description on thecatrinashop dot com.

La Calavera Catrina (‘Dapper Skeleton’, ‘Elegant Skull’) or Catrina La Calavera Garbancera is a 1910–1913 zinc etching by the Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. She is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolution era

After her invention by Posada, Diego Rivera took the image of the Calavera Garbancera and improved her looks. He added elegant clothes, fine bearing and some items associated with high society […] in his mural “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central,” or “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central” [source: expats in Mexico] She is now synonymous with Día de Muertos. I enjoy seeing how LA-locals Lily Martinez and Julie Sariñana dress up as a form of Catrina every year. They are sisters who I have followed since before we moved to LA. The artistry behind their costumes is always inspiring.

Why is Dia de Muertos Big in Los Angeles

What we know now as Los Angeles was once home to the Tongva nation. Later El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (The Town of the Queen of Angels) was officially founded on September 4, 1781. The settlement was part of Spain’s colonization of California, which began in the 1760s. [Those original] Los Angeles residents were made up of 44 pioneers from Spanish Mexico, known as the “pobladores.” According to historian Antonio Rios-Bustamate, the 23 adults and 21 children included people of Spanish, Mexican, American Indian, and African descent. They settled around the area we know today as […] Olvera Street, and the rest is… […] history. [source: curbed los angeles]

They brought their traditions with them. Was Día de Muertos part of that? It must have been. Whatever the exact evolution, LA is now a wonderful place to experience Mexican food, culture and traditions. That’s been heightened by popular culture and social media latching on to Day of the Dead, #tacotuesday et al. As long as we always give credit where credit is due and do not try to co-opt things as our own which aren’t, I don’t think this attention on Mexican traditions is a bad thing. (But would welcome comments and thoughts on that.) 

I happen to love LA’s multiculturalism. And because I do, nothing saddens me more than the disparaging rhetoric prevalent in today’s political discourse. It is sickening to me that so many suggest we should erase this and those who were, or are, immigrants.

Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten AlanaThis year I noticed many families responding to this by including these themes in their altars. Talking to these families made my heart break but it also filled me with hope. Choosing to support those who speak out and speaking out ourselves, is so important.

Two Places to Experience Dia de Muertos in Los Angeles

  • Olvera Street is where a colorful celebration unfolds over 9 days. From late October to early November, daily and nightly events occur. It is there that ancient traditions are merged with modern-day interpretations while honoring deceased loved ones. I like what they say on their postcard, “Let us remember their life on earth, and the beautiful spirits that live on after death.” Processions occur nightly at 7 PM. Entertainment and face painting occurs all day. There’s a 5K run that also occurs during this time. Use olveraevents.com to plan your visit. Learn more on their site. It is located right across from Union Station near several Metro and bus lines.
  • Hollywood Forever Cemetery is where Danté celebrated last year. I was out of town and unable to go. But he loved it so much that he bought us VIP tickets so we could return together this year.

Our tickets included:
– access to a dedicated shaded area with seating,
– complimentary face painting,
– alcoholic drinks and light bites,
– dedicated entry with no wait time.

Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana
Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana

This Día de Muertos celebration occurs on a single day. It takes place from roughly noon to midnight. By arriving at noon, we found that we had enough time to get our faces painted before the main performances and musical acts went on stage. The most elaborately costumed revelers show up for the costume contest later in the day. I really loved seeing those costumes and participating in dressing up. Yet it was my time spent talking to families that I walked away most inspired by. While Danté went off on his own, I took the time to talk to have conversations with people about their altars. I learned about their family members who had passed on. I recommend taking time to do the same!

Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana
Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana
Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten AlanaDia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana
Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana

Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana
Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana

Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana
Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana

Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana
Dia de Muertos: what is it and how to experience it in LA - Kirsten Alana

My flower crown is courtesy Roxitas Art and Jewelry who had a booth at the event. For information about Día de Muertos 2020 at Hollywood Forever start here and here. $1 per ticket in 2019 was donated to ECOLIFE in support of their efforts to protect the monarch butterfly biosphere reserve in Michoacán, Mexico.

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