A version of Dia de los Muertos has existed since pre-Columbian times. Rituals observing departed ancestors have been practiced for perhaps 3,000 years. In Aztec mythology, Mictēcacihuātl (Lady of the Dead) was the goddess of the underworld (Mictlan), tasked with caring over the bones of the dead and guiding the ancient festivals honoring them. As with many Latin traditions, they appropriated varying aspects of native religious customs and Catholicism, merging them into a unique cultural practice.
The modern version holiday is spread across three days. On October 31, “All Hallows Eve,” children will create an altar inviting the “angelitos” (the spirits of departed children) to return from the dead. Yes, while this may sound rather macabre, it is anything but. It is a joyous and colorful ode to the gift of life, celebrating the spirits of the dead rather than mourning them. November 1 is commonly known as “All Saint’s Day,” when the adult spirits come back and say hello. November 2 is “All Souls Day,” when families visit the graves of their loved ones.
The three-day festival is rife with symbolism and color. Most evident are the decorative skulls, as they adorn nearly everything, and vary from flowered and colorful to dark and morose. “Calaveras,” decorated candy skulls made of compressed sugar are bountiful and strewn everywhere.
Then there is the orange/gold splash of the marigolds across the “ofrendas,” elaborate altars set up to invite the dead back to the living. Some ofrendas are stoic and simple, others are a rococo fever dream. They are as individual as the people they are honoring. It is common to place offerings upon the altar, and this can be a complicated ordeal in itself. Pictures of the deceased, along with varying saints are place high upon the altar. The second tier is reserved for the simplicities of life that the deceased favored, candy, cigarettes, perhaps a shot of tequila. At the base of the alter are soap and water, so that the spirit may clean up after their long journey from the afterlife. Incense is burned in order to repel any spirits with evil intent.
Yes, unfortunately there has been a commercialization of the holiday, as well as appropriation. Authenticity is key. Which is why you should take advantage of living in one of the great Latin cities of the world and enjoy the multitude of Día de los Muertos events taking place around the community in the coming days.
There are beautiful and dignified processions. There is music and incredible food. There is dancing and fireworks. There is a way once can celebrate death with love and life. Here is a list of local events to help you do so:
Día de los Muertos at Self Help Graphics
There are many Día de los Muertos commemorations around Southern California, but the version presented by Self Help Graphics is not only one of the longest-running local celebrations, it’s one of the oldest such ceremonies and events in the entire country. For the 46th edition of Día de los Muertos, the venerable East L.A. community center offers food, traditional dance troupes, art, crafts and face-painting. Even better, Self Help Graphics hosts an impressively varied lineup of musicians, including the “vibrant polyrhythmic sound” of dance-floor instigators Buyepongo, along with the preteen and teenage punk phenoms The Linda Lindas (who recently were selected by none other than Bikini Kill to open one of their Palladium shows), plus Weapons of Mass Creation, Blanco y Negro and others. Self Help Graphics, 1300 E. First St., E.L.A.; Sat., Nov. 2, 4-10 p.m.; free; all ages. (323) 881-6444. selfhelpgraphics.com/diadelosmuertos2019. (Falling James)
Dia de Los Muertos on Olvera Street
For over 30 years running, Olvera Street has celebrated Dia de los Muertos. The celebration has evolved to incorporate the pre-Columbian, Aztec, Mayan and Catholic rituals surrounding death. Each night, a vibrant and colorful procession sets the stage for our ceremony. View the many beautiful altars in the plaza of El Pueblo at this Day of the Dead celebration on Olvera Street. There’ll be great shopping, food, face painting, mariachi bands and Aztec dancers, as well as a stirring candlelight procession every night. 125 Paseo De La Plaza, downtown; through Oct.29; free, all ages. DayOfTheDeadOlvera.com.
Celebrations at Forest Lawn
Various Forest Lawn locations host community festivals, honoring the dead while celebrating the day with artisanal floral displays, community altars, folk dancers, mariachi music performances, traditional cuisine, bilingual programs, face painting, arts & crafts, giveaways, and more. Fri., Nov. 2 at the Cathedral City location. forestlawn.com/events/.
Día de los Muertos Community Procession
The 4th annual Cypress Día de los Muertos Community Procession will begin at the Cypress Park Branch Library and end at the Los Angeles River Center & Gardens. There will be food and music provided at the end of the procession, as well as a grand altar/art installation. In respect to the Día de los Muertos tradition, no Halloween costumes are allowed. Cypress Park Branch Library, 1150 Cypress Ave.; Cypress; 6 p.m.; Tue, Oct 29; free, all ages. CypressDiaProcession.com.
Blessed Blossoms at MOLAA
L.A.-based artist Rosalie López will be transforming images of loved ones into paper flowers, while building an Día de los Muertos alter in the Museum of Latin American Lobby. 628 Alamitos Avenue, Long Beach; Wed. Oct. 30, 3:30 p.m.; free; all ages. Molaa.org.
Dark Karnival 2019: Dia de los Muertos
Dance the night away with Opulent Temple and The Cruz Coalition, presenting the 7th Annual Dark Karnival 2019: Dia de los Muertos, at the Mayan, featuring three rooms of music and dancing with a supernatural lineup of guest DJs (Sage Armstrong, Skiitour, Syd Gris). 1038 S Hill St., downtown; Fri. Nov. 1, 9 p.m. eventbrite.com/e/dark-karnival-2019-dia-de-los-muertos-tickets-66633922857.
Selena for Sanctuary
A free concert featuring an all-female line-up of L.A.-based Latinx artists will be performing a concert in the spirit of social justice. Featured performers include Empress Of, San Cha, Ceci Bastida, Maya Murillo, August Eve, and Loyal Lobos, plus the house band for the evening, Selenamos and DJ Zuri Adia (of Technocumbia). Organized by the L.A.-based, nonprofit Solidarity for Sanctuary, the concert’s goal is to raise awareness about issues concerning immigrant communities and offer resources to assist in the immigration process. Grand Park Performance Lawn (Near Hill Street), downtown; Fri; Nov 1; 7 p.m.; free; all ages GrandParkLA.org.
2nd Annual Día de los Muertos Family Festival on Catalina Island
An evening of face painting, tequila tasting, Coyote Joe’s tacos, with performances by Sin Frontera and Danza Azteca. The festival also invites all creative artists to submit their artwork in the Ofrenda/Altar & Art Contest for a chance to win a cash prize. Catalina Island Museum, 217 Metropole Avenue, Avalon; Fri, Nov. 1, 6 p.m.; members: $12, non-Members: $17, children (ages 3-15): $5; CatalinaMuseum.org.
Quixote Day of the Dead at Clifton’s Republic
Clifton Republic’s Quixote is feast for those with ballroom sensibilities. There is salsa, flamenco and tango dancing, along with four floors of mystical and ghoulish themes. 648 S. Broadway, downtown; Fri, Nov. 1, 6 p.m.; Nightout.com.
A New Dia
Windsome LA is celebrating the Day of the Dead with an immersive art installation by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. A first-of-its-kind experience, Rodriguez narrates the exhibit as he takes visitors through a sensory journey of the four geodesic dome installations. Wisdome LA, 1147 Palmetto Street, downtown; Oct. 18- Nov. 1; tickets $29. Windsome.LA.
Villa-Park Community Center
Join Villa-Parke Community Center and the Armory Center for the Arts in celebrating “Dia De Los Muertos,” a centuries old holiday honoring the deceased, celebrated in Latin America. View “ofrendas,” altars honoring the life of the departed and dance performances, while arts & crafts, face painting and food available for purchase will be available. 363 East Villa Street, Pasadena; Fri. Nov. 1, 5 p.m.; free, all ages; Villa-Parke.com.
13th Annual 24th Street Theatre Celebration
The 24th Street Theatre hosts Velaslavasay Panorama with an evening of song and dance, altars, face painting, food and crafts. 1122 West 24th St., Historic South-Central; Sat. Nov. 2; 6 p.m.; Panaramaonview.org.
HARD Day of the Dead 2019
HARDFEST returns to DTLA, at the LA State Historic Park with Dog Blood, The Martinez Brothers, Tokimonsta, Elohim, ZHU’s BLACKLIZT project and more. Los Angeles State Historic Park,1245 N Spring St,; Sat. Nov. 2, 2 p.m.; harddayofthedead.frontgatetickets.com
La Sonora Dinamita
Live from Colombia, La Sonora Dinamita performs, along with three floors of DJs and dancing. 6511 Greenleaf Avenue, Whittier; Sat. Nov. 2, 7 p.m. eventbrite.com/e/la-sonora-dinamita-full-band-from-colombia-dia-de-los-muertos-nov-2-tickets-
Los Angeles River Center & Gardens
Hang out among local political muckety mucks at the 6th annual Heal la Madre Tierra Dia de los Muertos Fundraiser at the Los Angeles River Center and Garden. Support a great cause with a night full of colors, music, food, and dancing, while celebrating a mission of female empowerment. 570 West Avenue 26, Cypress Park; Sat. Nov. 2, 6 p.m.; eventbrite.com/e/dia-de-los-muertos-2019-tickets-.
Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery
This is the big one. Hollywood Forever is the scene of L.A.’s most photogenic, elaborate and overwhelming Day of the Dead celebration. The grounds are covered with art exhibitions, dance rituals, musical performances, children’s arts and crafts projects and food vendors. There will be multiple altars to the dead created by community artists, as well as a calaca (skeleton) costume contest. This event packs out, so it is suggested that you arrive early. This year’s celebration pays respect to sacred migration of the monarch butterfly. 6000 Santa Monica Blvd.; Sat. Nov. 2, noon; $25. ladayofthedead.com
Art workshops, live performances, gallery tours and an interactive community altar, face painting, food and unique artisan vendors galore at the MOLAA’s annual family Día de los Muertos festival. Performances by Semillitas Pre-School with Kalpulli Tlaltekuhtli; Aztec dancers; L.A. Opera’s Zarzuela Project with mariachi; Voz de America Ballet Folklorico; Nueva Antequera with Maqueos Music Philharmonic Band; Los Caciques Del Caribe, DJ Eusebio Akasa. 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; Sun. Nov. 3, 10 a.m.; free; all ages. Molaa.org.
L.A. County Department of Recreation
LA County Department of recreation’s annual Dia de los Muertos Celebration hosted at the East Los Angeles Civic Center. Enjoy live entertainment, food, altars, art vendors, face painting and the Jr. Chef Experience. 1000 S. Fremont Ave. #40, Alhambra, Sun. Nov. 3, 3 p.m.; free, all ages. facebook.com/events/1125924904273784/