Last year, Disney based an entire cartoon on the rituals, traditions and imagery of a sacred Latino holiday meant to celebrate departed loved ones. And though the film was positively received, it was tainted by controversy in its early stages. The entertainment company sought to trademark the phrase “Día de los Muertos” for its merchandising of the film, leading to backlash from the Mexican-American community. There was even a Change.org petition charging that the trademark was the ultimate in “cultural appropriation and exploitation,” after which Disney wisely canceled the filing and renamed the movie.
Coco, which actually came out after Day of the Dead last year (around Thanksgiving), earned accolades for its reverent depiction of the holiday and for its all Latino-cast, but an earlier animated film, Book of Life (the brainchild of L.A.-based artist Jorge R. Gutierrez, covered a lot of the same ground. Both films gave American audiences a spirited glimpse at the meaning and artistry of the annual celebration, though the elaborate altars, sugar skulls and especially makeup had already been adopted by non-Latinos and incorporated into mainstream Halloween revelry in a myriad of ways for quite some time.
Some have taken issue with the holiday's commercialization (its aesthetics can be seen on everything these days, from clothing and accessories to party supplies at the 99 Cents Only store) but Día de los Muertos may be the one holiday and “costume” that's hard to call out as mindless racial appropriating. While American Indian or geisha costumes, for example, often are worn without much knowledge of the background or struggle inherent in the garb, painting one's face as a skeleton automatically signifies death. The embellishments in the makeup style and the feast of flowers worn as adornments are at this point synonymous with Day of the Dead. And pretty much everyone these days knows what it means in a general sense.
Some may not know that the holiday originated as a monthlong Aztec festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, a goddess of the underworld. When the Spanish colonized Mexico the holiday evolved a bit, incorporating other ways of honoring the dead from other Latin cultures. Halloween itself isn't much different- it might be about dressing sexy or as a serial killer today, but its roots are based on Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, as well as All Souls Day, which also honors deceased loved ones.
In Los Angeles, Día de los Muertos has been celebrated not only during its actual run (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) but for a full week or more. The biggest gathering this year was at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where the 19th annual Día de los Muertos event hosted over 35,000 attendees throughout the day and night this past Saturday. The event, which celebrated Coatilque, mother of the gods, offered performances by Panteón Rococó and the Mexican Institute of Sound, and featured a photo exhibit, a “floating” stage with Aztec dancers and a “Bridge of Life After Death” (similar to the one seen in Coco) over the cemetery lake.
Still, it was the ofrendas (offerings) and altars that were the main attractions. Strolling throughout the grounds Saturday night with thousands of patrons and families of all races in dazzling, detailed makeup, I marveled at the magnificent creations honoring beloved souls -some whimsical and fun, some more serious and traditional. It felt like the most respectful way to not only celebrate Latin and Mexican culture but also after-life itself. After all, the dead lie there always and forever. Personally, I hadn't experienced a Day of the Dead and an actual death of someone very close to me until this year, and the timing gave the experience a bittersweet new dimension. Most altars have photos of loved ones on them; more than ever before, I felt the altar makers' desire to honor these people with beautiful things and their favorite foods and objects. It is about warm and loving tribute and taking away the morbidity that some might associate with death, and this celebration did just that.
So how can you celebrate Día de los Muertos before it's gone? Here, we offer some options below happening today, tonight and this weekend. Create, dance, drink, eat and never forget the love inside for those who have left this life.
Fourth Annual Grand Avenue Arts: All Access
Several events are planned during this free community event including some Day of the Dead-themed activities. A Sugar Skull Workshop for children and adults will have decorating and discovering and learning about the significance behind the sweet symbol of Día de los Muertos (2-4 p.m.). Guests are also invited to attend docent-led tours of this Downtown landmark and architectural marvel at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
Grand Park, in partnership with Self-Help Graphics & Art and LORE Media & Art will also present Altars + Art, an exhibit including 50 altars and art installations created exclusively for the event by local artists and community groups. Reflecting the theme “Looking to the Past to Build the Future” the pieces promise an eye-opening meld of traditional imagery and innovative expression. The exhibit will be open all day, and guests are invited to join community artists on guided tours as well. There will also be altar-making and Aztec dance workshops from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tours begin at the Grand Park stairs on Grand Avenue between Temple and First streets.
All events Sat., Nov. 3. Free and all ages. More info on these and other All Access events at grandavearts.org.
Altamed Health Services' “Drag of the Dead” Show
AltaMed Health Services, the nation’s largest independent federally-qualified community health center, known for providing HIV and AIDS health care to L.A.'s Latino, and multi-ethnic communities in need, hosts “Drag of the Dead,” a fun, queen-filled performance. Other amusements include a community altar and face painting. Most importantly, the event aims to provide LGBTQ youth (ages 16 and older) with a safe space to celebrate the Day of the Dead and celebrate life by learning about HIV prevention. Free HIV testing will be available for all. 512 S. Indiana St., East L.A.; Fri., Nov. 2, 6-10 p.m.; free. altamed.org.
Dia de Los Muertos on Olvera Street
Olvera Street's party has been going on for 30 years now, evolving and incorporating pre-Columbian, Aztec, Mayan and Catholic rituals surrounding death. The nine day festival winds down tonight with its biggest gathering yet. Join the colorful procession and ceremony filled with altars on display, children’s workshops, face painting, and live entertainment. It's an opportunity to celebrate of life and culture as well as support your local merchants' who keep this landmark alive. Olvera Street, at North Alameda & North Los Angeles streets, downtown; Fri., Nov. 2, 7 p.m.; free; all ages. olvera-street.com.
24th Street Theatre's 12th annual Dia de Los Muertos Festival
“Día de los Muertos for the people and by the people” is how the 24th Street Theatre is promoting their community fiesta filled with dance, music, food, art and lots of vibrant decorations. Outside performances are free and indoor performances with limited seating are $2.40. 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., University Park; Fri., Nov. 2, 6-10 p.m. 24thstreet.org/dia-de-los-muertos/.
Dia de los Muertos at the Patisserie
The Patisserie at the Bazaar by José Andrés has been honoring the holiday with unique treats and ornamentation for the past week and continues tonight, transforming traditional ofrenda decorations and bites into menu items including mole bon bons, mezcal bon bons, pan de muerto bon bon and arroz con leche mousse cake with nectarines (resembling the cempasuchil/marigold flower symbolic of the holiday). 465 S. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Grove; (310) 246-5555, thebazaar.com.
Self Help Graphics & Art's 45th annual Día de los Muertos Main Celebration
Touted as the oldest Day of the Dead commemoration in the nation, Self Help's program provides the community with a season of activities throughout the Fall, including workshops and gallery exhibits culminating with this activity and entertainment packed event. Honoring ancestors with ofrendas, music, art, food vendors and a procession, this event focuses on the traditions of the past and how they must be appreciated today. It begins with the ceremonia tradicional (traditional procession) meeting at Mariachi Plaza (4:30 p.m.) and march to Self Help Graphics (5 p.m.) where performances take place b The California Feetwarmers, La Chamba, The Altons, Danza Chicomecoatl, El Teatro Campesino, and Mendez High School Marching Band. The gathering is free but patrons are invited to donate to Self Help, which also has an ongoing exhibit to check out called “How We Remember and How We Survive,” curated by SHG artist-in-residence Dewey Tafoya. Celebration at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School, 1200 Plaza del Sol. Art exhibit (across the street) at Self Help Graphics, 1300 E. First St. Both in Boyle Heights. Fri., Nov. 2. selfhelpgraphics.com.