Each year Santa Ana, California hosts one of the largest Dia de Los Muertos festivals in the US, at its Noche de Altares festival. It’s a colorful and flavorful event, where the dead are the life of the party.
Not to be confused with Halloween, Dia de los Muertos is a happy holiday that has been celebrated since 1800 BC. The origins are pre-Columbian but the modern celebration has been embraced throughout Mexico, Latin America and abroad, in countries including the Philippines.
The centerpiece of this holiday and the Santa Ana event are the “altares” – literally the altars, built to honor and celebrate the dead. These altars include familiar objects, photos, and favorite foods. At the Santa Ana festival anyone from the community is welcome to rent a space and set up an altar.
Most spots are claimed by local residents who wish to honor their dead relatives, but many spots are also also claimed by schools and organizations who build altars to highlight causes. For example, at this year’s festival we saw altars designed to bring light to veteran issues, an altar for the victims of the Orlando shooting, an altar for victims of police violence and an altar dedicated to Syrian refugees.
This woman whose dress paid homage to the 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College who went missing in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico on September 26, 2014, stopped us in our tracks.
Most of the altars are deeply personal, conveying so much about the person who is being remembered. It’s a touching tribute, and although sad, very comforting in many ways. Speaking about the dead is somewhat taboo, in our society, and grief so often masked.
Here is a night to speak aloud about the departed, to acknowledge their existence and reconfirm it. They may be gone, but they are still here. In fact, the offerings on the altar are designed to welcome visitation from the departed. They include elements of the earth (water, clay earthenware, salt, scented flowers) and fire (candles) believed to draw spirits out.
Traditional foods are favored but we saw offerings that included Cheetos, Tequila, Cup-o-Noodles, ice cream cones and more. And it is not just the human departed who are honored. Many altar builders welcome visitation from dear departed pets as well.
Click on the video in the header for a more detailed view of many of Santa Ana’s 2016 Noche de Altares Altars
Mexican poet, Octavio Paz wrote about Dia de Los Muertos,
“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
Each region of Latin America varies a bit in their traditions, but there are many constants, including altar building, sugar skull (calaveras) decorating, face painting and the baking and sharing of Pan de Muerte – or dead bread. This is a sweet bread that is decorated with sugar or cinnamon and includes the shape of bones.
The face painting and costumes that we see today is most certainly inspired by La Calavera Catrina – a character inspired by the work of two artists. The original lithograph La Calavera Catrina showing a skeleton dressed in finery, was drawn between 1910-13 by Jose Guadelupe Posada. It was a political and social statement, referencing indigenous people’s attempts to look whiter through the use of make-up and elaborate European styles of clothing. But we are all equal in death.
This iconic image was further cemented in the popular psyche by the appearance of Catrina in a 1947 mural by Diego Rivera. Catrina still presides over this holiday, with costumes and finery an homage to her, and Catrina leading the procession, lighting candles at each altar.
Many people choose to paint only half their face. This highlights the fleeting nature of mortality and youthful beauty.
Face painting, costumes and a candle lighting procession are part of the festivities in downtown Santa Ana as is music and feasting. Live performances take place throughout the day. The celebration snakes thru downtown Santa Ana with blocks of artists selling their handmade goods.
Mark your calendars for next year. This is one party with the spirits you don’t have to be afraid of.