Olvera Street may just be the most lively spot in Los Angeles to celebrate Día de Los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. Known as “the birthplace of Los Angeles,” the bustling downtown market square is animated with vendors, performers, and locals as they engage in the annual holiday.
Día de los Muertos is celebrated at midnight on Nov. 1 and ends on Nov. 2. Families dedicate this time to honor and remember their deceased loved ones with food, drinks, and a celebration. About 50 percent of LA County’s population is of Hispanic origin. With 75 percent of that population being Mexican, the holiday has become a great deal in Southern California.
At a paper-wrapped wall near the stage on El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, people wrote the names of their loved ones who passed away. Lisette Rivera jotted down the names of her grandparents and uncles “to feel their spirit.” Across her scapula is a tattooed image of her grandfather, who died about 20 years ago when Rivera was only 7 years old, but who nevertheless left a lasting impression on her. “So I won’t be carrying a picture around everywhere, I just put the picture on myself,” she explained.
Rivera came to Olvera Street from North Hollywood to watch her 2-year-old daughter dance in folklórico, a traditional folk dance with ballet characteristics, for the first time. She wants her daughter, a second-generation Mexican-American, to become familiar with her culture. Now that her daughter understands a bit more than she had last year, Rivera hopes to have her participate in her family’s prayer gatherings at home.
Setting up an ofrenda — an altar decorated with candles, cut up tissue paper, pictures of the deceased person, flowers, the person’s favorite food and drinks, and decorated skulls made of sugar to represent the sweetness of life — is just one of the ways Mexican families commemorate their ancestors.
Silvia Sanchez, a hairstylist and accountant from the San Fernando Valley, goes all out for Halloween, but also recognizes why Día de Los Muertos is important to her.
“You celebrate the people that pass away. My brother was murdered in 2004,” Sanchez began to cry as her 12-year-old daughter, Adrianna, grabs her hand. “I celebrate him as much as I can throughout the year, but I celebrate [The Day of the Dead] for him.” Sanchez has not made an ofrenda yet, but she keeps her brother’s picture next to a candle on display in her home year-round.
Dating back about 3,000 years, Día de los Muertos can trace its roots to the Aztecs who viewed death as a fundamental part of life and believed the souls of the dead could briefly visit the living. Although celebrated in close proximity to Oct. 31, Día de los Muertos is not a Mexican version of Halloween, nor is it meant to be scary.
Sanchez brought Adrianna to have a makeup artist paint an imitation of La Calavera Catrina on her face.
Sanchez found Judith Bautista, owner of Kahlovera Art, through her sister who does event planning in Van Nuys. Like many, Bautista has adopted La Catrina as an emblem of Día de Los Muertos that reminds her community to embrace mortality.
In one way or another, Olvera Street serves as a host for community among those who share the same heritage. Adrianna was preparing to compete in the Catrin & Catrina Costume Contest in Van Nuys in a Freddie Mercury costume designed by her mother. Adrianna has won the children’s category for the contest two years in a row — last year she entered dressed as another late artist, Tejano music artist Selena Quintanilla.
Standing beside the Olvera Street Wishing Well, Anahi Galindo and Vivian Sapien-Lopez, two seniors at San Gorgonio High School, had similar makeup on one half of their faces. Sapien-Lopez’s makeup matched the vibrant blue and purple streaks in her hair. Both of the teenagers came with a group of friends to traverse the street market and eat lunch.
Not only can visitors browse and appreciate traditional handcrafted items, but they can also indulge in the culture through an educational experience. Across the street from the street market is La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican-American museum and culture center where small families were trickling in to see the free exhibits on view.
Near the museum is Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church. This cathedral serves the Archdiocese of over 5 million Catholics in Los Angeles. On Tuesday Nov. 1, there was the Solemnity of All Saints mass to commemorate the saints of the church; on Wednesday Nov. 2, the cathedral held the Solemn Vespers for all Souls’ Day mass to honor and ease the suffering of those who have died.
“I celebrate at home with an ofrenda for my great grandparents, uncles and aunts,” said Lopez. “Día de Los Muertos is a time for me to remember all the good memories I had with them.”