The Mexican spiritual holiday Día de los Muertos is nothing like the hard-partying, skull-faced hoopla celebrated by L.A.'s own indigenous peoples, the hipsters. On the first day of the two-day observation in Mexico, children craft a child's altar indoors to welcome angelicas, the spirits of dead children, to enter their homes. On day two, the adults reach back in time to talk about and pray for loved ones who have died.
The British best-selling fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?” That's the basic concept of Day of the Dead, and it sounds damn good to us.
Here then, in honor of Día de los Muertos, is a list — in no particular order — of 10 individuals (to be clear, nine people and one dog) whom we lost in 2015, and we will always miss.
1) Michele Serros, Chicana writer, 48
Michele Serros published her first book while still a student at Santa Monica College. By the time she transferred to UCLA, her book was required reading in some classes. As Jessica Langlois wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “After coming up in the Los Angeles slam-poetry scene in the early 1990s, she toured with Lollapalooza in 1994, performing poetry from her debut, Chicana Falsa.” Following publication of her book How to Be a Chicana Role Model, a Los Angeles Times bestseller, “she spent a season as a writer for The George Lopez [Show] and was named by Newsweek” as a woman to watch in the new century.
She didn't get a chance to fully live out those coming decades, dying at her California home in January of an aggressive form of throat cancer. But her portrayals of bicultural life in America left a deep impression far beyond her time here. At a tribute to her, a former writing teacher said Serros was like her first book — “a little off-color, rough around the edges, but speaking in a way that demands attention.”
2) Wes Craven, director, 76
It's pretty simple: Wes Craven taught people how to face their fears through the various characters he created in his movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left and many more. He liked to probe the nature of reality, tweaking our fear of everyday things like bad dreams and strange noises at night.
This genius of horror, particularly slasher films, started out as a humanities teacher, but bought a used 16mm camera and found he enjoyed making short films. He went on to make a boatload of hard-core porn films under various pseudonyms before finding his real calling. Most recently Craven directed all four films in the Scream series, and executive produced the TV series of the same name. After he died of brain cancer in August at his L.A. home, actors rushed to praise him, including Neve Campbell, Angela Bassett, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Robert Englund and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
3) Susan Ahn Cuddy, Naval officer and code breaker, 100
The diminutive Susan Ahn Cuddy shattered racial and gender barriers by becoming the first Asian woman to join the U.S. Navy, where she rose to lieutenant in the 1940s, then went on to become a code breaker for the National Security Agency. She and fellow code breaker Frank Cuddy, a white man, defied America's racial separation laws in 1947, getting married in Washington, D.C. A lifelong activist for Asian-American rights and many causes, even in her 90s she campaigned for Barack Obama, gave speeches to the Navy and raised funds for breast cancer, a disease she survived.
Her son Phillip Cuddy told iamkoream.com that shortly before she died at her Northridge home in June, his mom attended a Korean-American Coalition conference in the San Gabriel Mountains, where she urged young people to aim high. He told the group his mom's life story, and she weighed in from her wheelchair, “talked clearly and was engaged,” Cuddy said. “She said some really neat things that made some girls in the audience cry. She was saying what she sees is very promising — [that] they can do anything they wanted.”
4) Michael Kandel, DJ and producer, 47
Mike Kandel and his longtime friend Tom Chasteen formed the first EDM label in Los Angeles, Exist Dance, back in 1991, and were so focused on the music that they happily operated their first studio, Heaven, from a space in a trashed-out section of Skid Row long before the gentrifiers arrived. As Thomas Kelley wrote for L.A. Weekly after Kandel died suddenly of natural causes in May, under his stage name Tranquility Bass, Kandel “was a pioneer of ambient trip-hop.”
That legacy has endured: 1993’s Excursions in Ambience album “was recently highlighted by [author] Michaelangelo Matos as a landmark in his history of U.S. EDM,” his book The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America. Kandel conquered more than that — his 1997 album, Let the Freak Flag Fly, inspired a “cult following that spans several genres beyond the dance realm,” according to Billboard.
5) Maureen O'Hara, actress, 95
Though an L.A. Times obituary used the condescending phrase “She held her own” in describing Maureen O'Hara's starring roles with male leads like John Wayne, she was in fact as powerful, personally, as the men around her. An Irish immigrant and natural athlete with both grit and beauty, O'Hara was so disgusted by the silly roles assigned her by studio execs that she cited only three movies, out of 25 she'd made during her first decade in Hollywood, as offering roles she could be proud of.
Named one of the five most beautiful women in the world, O'Hara refused to be judged by her appearance. After other stars gave up fighting the nasty and inaccurate gossip magazine Confidential, O'Hara persisted and won her lawsuit, leading in part to the magazine's failure. And those three favorite movie roles? She was referring to her classic turns in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, How Green Was My Valley and Miracle on 34th Street.
6) Brian Breye, black museum founder, 79
Brian Breye used to tell a story of riding a motorcycle from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to get his start in life. Later, in the 1980s, he founded Museum in Black in Leimert Park, and it became known for its two very different display rooms: the front room, adorned with African masks, beautiful carvings and detailed figurines, and the back room, filled with disturbing items from America's slavery era and segregation wars.
“It's a sad chapter of our history, but it's important to remember,” Breye, who died of cancer in L.A. in August, told leimertparkmovie.com long ago. “Black people need to know who they are.” In 1994, he explained his back-room collection to the L.A. Times — slave manacles, a photo of a lynching, “Whites Only” signs and vintage labels like Pickaninny Freeze ice cream — by saying, “I find them to be very offensive.” But he felt young people needed to see the truth of history: “I think we fail to look back into the past, and we fail to say to ourselves, 'Never again.'”
7) Claudia Alexander, NASA mission manager, 56
A brilliant JPL scientist who stuck out at NASA because she was both a woman and black, Claudia Alexander was the last project manager of the years-long, $1.5 billion Galileo mission and lead scientist for NASA on the Rosetta project. But despite her lofty work, Alexander was insistent on drawing in the public for their support — and to share information. She drew in amateur astronomers via social media and recognized the value of these amateurs' ground-level observations as the Rosetta craft moved toward deep space.
She “had a special understanding of how scientific discovery affects us all, and how our greatest achievements are the result of teamwork, which came easily to her,” JPL director Charles Elachi said after Alexander died in Arcadia in July of breast cancer. In an interview with University of Michigan's Engineering Magazine, Alexander revealed that her creativity had been spurred by childhood loneliness. “I was the only black girl in pretty much an all-white school and spent a lot of time by myself — with my imagination,” she said.
8 and 9) Rick Orlov, 66, and Bob Baker, 67, gentlemen of journalism
They worked for rival newspapers, Rick Orlov for the Los Angeles Daily News, Bob Baker for the Los Angeles Times, but they were the reigning gentlemen of journalism in L.A., old-schoolers who never burned a source, spent much of their time mentoring young writers and were kind-hearted in a sometimes cynical and hard-bitten business.
Baker worked for the Times for 26 years and rose to become an editor on the city desk. And while he wrote or edited thousands of stories stretching back to his stint as editor of the Daily Sundial at CSUN, he might be remembered over time for his practical book Newsthinking: The Secret of Making Your Facts Fall Into Place, which became a college textbook. When he died in July from Parkinson's and Lewy body disease, social media lit up with comments from a full generation of journalists who Bob Baker had helped,
Orlov, dubbed the dean of City Hall reporters, earned the Los Angeles Press Club's highest honor, the Quinn Award for Lifetime Achievement, in 2009, and covered government and politics for the Daily News for 30 years. When he died in February from complications of diabetes, numerous memorials had to be held to satisfy all the journalists, civic leaders and business honchos who hoped to say farewell. At a public memorial in City Hall — the only one the politicos could recall being held for a journalist — former City Controller Wendy Greuel said of Orlov, “You’d end up telling him things off the record that you swore to your staff that you’d never say.”
10) Tillman, the Skateboarding Bulldog, 10
Tillman inspired millions of people as the YouTube sensation with four legs who could skateboard, and even surf, in his home of Venice. His owner, Ron Davis, notified the public on Oct. 28: “I'm sorry to announce the world lost a true legend. … My best bud Tillman passed away last night, of natural causes. We spent 10 years making so many incredible memories skating, surfing and hanging out together. No words can truly describe how much he’ll be missed. Thanks for all the good times, Tilly.”
Tillman died en route to a hospital with heart problems. Davis told the L.A. Times, “He was my best friend, my brother and my shadow, and when it was showtime, it was amazing. He made millions and millions of people smile throughout the world. He was a little 60-pound butterball of inspiration for a lot of people.”