Grand Park's third annual Dia de los Muertos celebration is its most overtly political yet.
Starting with 10 altars in 2012, the exhibit of tributes to the dead — some personal, some issue-driven — has now grown to include 50 different exhibits, many of which have cultural or social justice themes — police brutality, gay rights, gang violence, the plight of unaccompanied minors traveling from Central America to immigrate to the U.S. This year's event also includes three altars by politicians: Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilmember Jose Huizar, and L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who announced in September that she will try to unseat Huizar from his spot on the City Council.
The altar created by Mayor Garcetti's office dedicated to boys and girls who have died trying to come to the United States is a tragic reminder of a story that dominated, then quickly passed out of the news cycle. With its unpolished appearance, the Mayor's altar looks far more homespun than one might expect from something coming out of the office of the city's top elected official, with the exception of one clever detail: a center cutout placed to perfectly frame City Hall. Other than that, the altar is traditionally unslick, made to look like it could have been made by a familia: covered with Mexican blankets, tissue paper cutouts, flowers, and suitably childlike mementoes like candy, Tonka trucks, and photos of deceased children framed in shoeboxes. Like the Mayor himself, the altar is a mix of artsy and approachable, with just a touch of heartbreak.
Councilmember Jose Huizar's altar, "Heroes de CD 14," casts a wide net, even laying claim to frequent downtown library visitor Ray Bradbury, but also including many notable residents of the district that includes downtown, Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Highland Park and Eagle Rock. Memorialized in the altar alongside Bradbury are mochi ice cream magnate Frances Hashimoto; Scott Wilson, who planted 700 oaks at Occidental College and died after falling out of a tree he had climbed to pick blossoms from; Ezat Delijani, historic preservationist who purchased many vintage Los Angeles movie palaces; Manuel Rojas, owner of El Tepeyac Cafe; El Sereno community activist Lou Santillan; and actress Lupe Ontiveros.
Huizar's altar takes a safe, somewhat predictable, and low-key approach, probably a good move given where the council member was last October: in the middle of a sex scandal involving an affair and accusations of sexual harassment.
Personal problems aside, Huizar can count among his more recent accomplishments securing a $150,000 donation to restore artist Eloy Torrez's mural The Pope of Broadway depicting Anthony Quinn, and helping to overturn L.A.'s private property mural ban last year. Huizar wanted to participate in the downtown Dia de los Muertos exhibit not only to honor members of his community but to continue his support of public art, spokesman Rick Coca says. "People think of the Day of the Dead holiday as like Halloween, but it's not," Coca says. "It's really more about the Latino tradition of looking at death straight in the eyes. What these types of projects do is give people a moment to reflect."
Supervisor Gloria Molina is the only political "old hand" at this downtown altar thing — it's her second year of participation. Molina's altar is an elaborate, show-stopping display with a flower arch, and three tables of artifacts that outdoes her rival Huizar in size and showmanship. Last year, her exhibit dedicated to her deceased father had a personal feel. This year, Molina throws down a political gauntlet with an altar honoring Sal Castro, an educator and activist who led the 1968 East Los Angeles High School student walkouts in protest of unequal school conditions throughout LAUSD. In bright colors with large photos and posters of Castro's biography, Blowout, and even displaying pairs of Castro's shoes and one of his neckties alongside the traditional painted skulls, Molina's altar to Castro doesn't just read as a tribute to the outspoken education activist, but also doubles as a paean to Molina's own brazen ambitions. It's a rare feat in L.A. politics for anyone to unseat an incumbent city council member, but maybe Molina has a ghost of a chance.
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The altars will be on display during Grand Park's Dia de los Muertos concert on Saturday, November 1.
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