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Dia de los Muertos PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alejandro Chavez and Diana Martinez | Editor   
Thursday, 31 October 2013 05:31

Day of the Dead In The San Fernando Valley And Los Angeles Upholds Traditions At Some Locations And Has Become A Commercial Holiday At Others

On Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, Dia de los Muertos, or translated into English, Day of the Dead, honors those who have passed away.

Dia de los Muertos was transformed into a Mexican Catholic holiday to coincide with All Saints and All Souls day, but its roots run deep in Mexico's Mesoamerican indigenous traditions that are more than 3,500 years old in it's purest practice families. In rural Mexico, families gather together to visit and clean the gravesites of their loved ones, placing their photos, favorite foods including pan de muerto (egg bread shaped into bones) and sugar skulls and drink, items the deceased enjoyed and items that represented their life. Bright cempasúchil – orange marigold flowers – lead a pathway to the grave.

Honoring A Tradition

Traditional copal incense is burned; a blessing of the gravesite is given, sometimes from a Catholic priest and sometimes from an indigenous holy man. It's believed that the deceased will find their way back to the physical world and enjoy the items brought to them. The mood is both reverent and festive. Music is sometimes played and families picnic, talk, laugh and tell stories about the memories of their loved ones.

It's a time of reverence but there is also much about Dia de los Muertos that is a celebration. It's not a morose or sad time, but a time to gather with family and sit and talk about your loved one. It's a time to laugh, talk about good memories and fun time and even poke fun at death. People dress in calavera (skeleton) costumes and paint their faces to look like skulls. Kids run around and play and sometimes musicians and folklorico dancers also dressed for the occasion's performance.

The holiday embraces the indigenous belief that death is simply another dimension of life and there is a strong belief in the afterlife. The holiday is a merge of both Catholic and indigenous traditions. During the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Catholic priests who viewed the rituals as sacrilegious and the indigenous people as barbaric, which they were not, and pagan, which they certainly were, tried to kill the rituals but their efforts failed. So as part of their campaign to convert the Indians to Catholicism, the Spaniards moved the indigenous holidays from the summer months to honor the dead to coincide with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (Nov. 1 and 2), as it is celebrated today. Nov. 1 honors children who have passed away and Nov. 2 honors the adults.

In the United States, Dia de los Muertos traditions take place in people's homes and at public festivals where sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate altars are constructed to honor the deceased.

In Los Angeles, many Dia de los Muertos events are held each year and include art exhibits and entertainment. In the San Fernando Valley, Tia Chucha' s Cultural Center is holding a community event Nov. 1 and 2 with the San Fernando Valley Historical Society and the Mission College Drama Club that benefits the center and helps to raise money for stolen headstones at Pioneer Cemetery. In Northridge, Chicano Studies students at CSUN, noting the Aztec traditions have named their event, Miccailhuitontli Dia de Ofrenda festival.

Commercializing Dia de los Muertos

Cinco de Mayo was a holiday brought to universities by Chicano activists as a teaching opportunity and has now become a very commercial holiday incorrectly promoted as a drinking holiday.

Somewhat similarly, Dia de los Muertos community events in the United States were first organized by Chicano artists as an expression of Mexican art and traditions. Now items for Dia de los Muertos can be purchased at major stores and the largest Dia de los Muertos event in L.A is held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and is an event with a large show of entertainment and sponsors. While at this event, you may find some personal altars; you may also find a large altar to Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities buried there. It is more of an entertainment event rather than an intimate traditional celebration and is viewed as an "anything goes" commercialization of the indigenous tradition.

So much so, that the Nestles Corporation, a main sponsor for the event, is promoting their plans to build the largest altar to get into the Guiness Book of World Records. They are calling their plans to enterprise the event as an opportunity to "celebrate culture your way." The altar, according to their press release information, will display skeletons created by artists drinking Nestles chocolate.

Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever has been jokingly referred to as "Melrose playing Day of the Dead," with long lines of people, some dressed in Halloween costumes, waiting to gain entry has to the cemetery and every kind of booth imaginable selling wares. While Hollywood Forever has provided paid opportunities for some visual artists and performers, it is not viewed as a traditional expression of the holiday.

Dia de los Muertos is often incorrectly compared to Halloween. Many Americans see the prototypical dancing skeletons (calaveras) and celebration of death as macabre or related to Halloween but it's not.

Halloween costumes were originally meant to scare away evil spirits. El Dia de Los Muertos is not scary, it honors loved ones but also pokes fun at death. It reflects the Mexican belief to embrace death, not be afraid of it, and to see death as the continuation of life. To understand that mourning and grief can also be expressed through laughter and the telling of happy memories. Death is not to be feared. It's viewed as a natural cycle of life that continues in the spirit world. It's for celebration and to re-live the good times of those who have passed and acknowledge that they are still part of our lives.


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