There's a phrase in Mexico used to describe the festivities during Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): Los muertos al cajón y los vivos al fiestón. The dead to their graves and the living to a big party.
It's a fitting phrase to describe the annual Día de los Muertos festivities at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which brought Mexican pop star Julieta Venegas, nearly 100 uniquely designed altars and more Aztec dancers than the local MEChA chapter to Hollywood's oldest cemetery.
The 60,000 people who crowded into the cemetery on Saturday, Oct. 29, were greeted with an altar at the main entrance built around the portraits of the 49 victims of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier this year. The piece served as a strong and immediate reminder to all attendees that the festival was a serious and authentic celebration despite what any alcohol or corporate branding might otherwise lead you believe.
“Considering that they have corporate sponsors, they've done a pretty good job of not making that the priority,” said Eric Mendoza, who has attended 11 of the 17 DdlM events at Hollywood Forever so far.
He remembers the days when the festival was free and focused mainly on art before shifting to a donation model and, ultimately, to its current incarnation, with corporate sponsors helping to bankroll big-name artists such as Saul Hernandez, Lila Downs and this year's headliner, Julieta Venegas. However, as Mendoza points out, those corporate brands help keep the ticket price at a relatively low $20. Tickets for a concert featuring Venegas as the headliner at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium last July sold for more than double that price.
“Do you get Julieta Venegas or get whatever artist because you can't really afford to pay a bigger artist?” he continues. “That's where the tradeoff is … but I do think that there's a way to incorporate [sponsors] where they don't necessarily change the identity of the festival. To me, it's not a bad thing, but I can see other people's criticisms of it because it's kind of like the Coachella of Día de los Muertos. Unlike Coachella, though, it's not blatant sponsorships or being bombarded by stuff all the time. It's done in a way that's still respectful of the space and people's altars.”
This year's main sponsor, Estrella Jalisco beer (which is now distributed in the United States by Anheuser-Busch), had just two highly visible logos in the event that I could see. The first was near the main entrance as a tall pseudo-altar. The second appeared on the mainstage during the unveiling of banda artist Jenni Rivera's hologram. The beloved artist died in a plane crash four years ago and her hologram tribute, created by her estate and Hologram USA, and presented by Estrella Jalisco, is the closest to an actual resurrection at a DdlM festival anywhere on the planet.
As in previous years, the 91 altars that lined the walkways of the cemetery were a huge hit. Passersby posed for photos next to altars dedicated to ultimate spaceman David Bowie, El Divo de Juarez Juan Gabriel and Chicano poet Francisco Alarcón. There were many altars built by local residents to commemorate their loved ones, and attendees stopped to listen to stories about the deceased relatives.
“I remember growing up, people [said] the Hollywood Forever event had become too commercialized or [brought up] the whole issue with cultural appropriation,” said Steve Alfaro, who attended the event as part of Voto Latino. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Los Angeles and attended many Day of the Dead events curated by Self Help Graphics & Art in Boyle Heights and the long-defunct Festival de la Gente near the Sixth Street bridge before moving east.
“I didn't see it that way,” he continues. “I think there's something good and something powerful about educating other communities that live there. I saw a lot of diversity, and I thought that was cool because there's something cool about sharing that experience with the whole community of Los Angeles.”
He was most moved by an altar dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement and the victims of police violence, as well as the altar by Health4All, which told the story of an undocumented person who died because their citizenship status denied them access to healthcare. There was also an altar built by the folks from Fuerza Positiva, an offshoot of AIDS Project Los Angeles, to support their work in helping HIV-positive Latino people living in L.A. County obtain healthcare services.
Mendoza built an altar for the festival nine years ago. The idea was to have the altar serve as a prop and stage for his friend to perform on. Building the altar proved to be a transformative experience. He was happily surprised to find a diverse group of people cheering his friend on during her performance. The personal connections he made that night in the cemetery during Día de los Muertos confirmed the purpose of the event for him.
“I see it as a celebration of my life and reminding me of my mortality,” he explains. “That was one of the things that I got most from doing an altar there, because the altar was actually music, and once people started dancing, it was pretty surreal to be dancing on top of people's graves … [but] doing it in a respectful way, because I still go visit the dead people who we built the altar on top of. I feel a very personal connection to them. It was really awesome to have my best friend singing and my mom there and her dad and a bunch of people that we met that day and have that dichotomy of … celebrating life while also celebrating death.”