Resuming my walking field trips: Dia de Los Muertos Los Angeles

It’s currently closing in on two years since I felt that being “out there mingling” seemed like a good idea. I’m still cautiously avoiding large crowds and very choosy about any public involvement, but I am slowly exploring again.

I was able to make my way downtown with the purpose of viewing Grand Park’s Ninth Annual Dia de Los Muertos art installation.

Dia de los Muertos, originating in Central Mexico over 3,000 years ago, is a celebration honoring the dead by providing food, water and items deemed important in helping spirits of those loved and remembered on their journey to a final resting place.

Los Angeles began a more formal revival of this tradition in 1972, as part of the Chicano Movement’s reclamation of  Mexican-American Indigenous identity. 

 

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I admit It took me years to show an active interest in understanding the tradition. Once I did, however, I began to find beauty in the ofrendas as well as appreciate the symbolism that once eluded me. As the years have rolled by, and perhaps in tandem as I have lost loved ones that continue to hold esteem and respect in my memory, I have more actively made attempts to learn a little more each year.

A small example might be that although I tend to love orange and yellow colors, I’m not particularly fond of marigolds. The tradition of incorporating this bright and bold flower wasn’t particularly appealing to me. 

But the tradition includes the marigolds as a specific flower that attract the souls of the dead to the offerings, with bright petals and a strong scent guiding the souls from the cemetery to their family’s home. When I contemplate that intention, the flower is exceptional and I even bring some into my home as flowers of remembrance.

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Many of the altars were dedicated to one individual, but more were embracing a larger family of ancestors or friends, each installation recalling a theme or telling a story.

For the last few years I’ve noticed altar dedications to women who have lost their lives to domestic violence. The beautiful, mostly young faces in the photos speak for themselves.

The German Shepherd Rescue Society also makes an appearance to represent the conditions that leave animals vulnerable to neglect and abuse, leading to an early death.  Some of the photos are accompanied by explanation and story and individuals are welcome to leave photos of their own pets in remembrance.

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I found my time walking quietly through the Grand Park space very contemplative and deeply meaningful. There were both large and small altars addressing lives lost to Covid-19, with emphasis on reminding visitors that all those remembered are more than statistics.

The tradition provides opportunity to quietly consider the grief and sadness of others, but with an accompanying feeling of peace. 

 

My descriptions don’t really do justice to the many ways this cultural event embodies the heritage of the Mexican people, but I hope if you’re at all interested you might take some time to learn more.

The traditional celebration period is from October 31st through November 2, with other days included depending on locality.

Locally there are many evening celebrations that have offered food and music and a party atmosphere. At this point I have no idea when I will want to be a part of crowds or a more robust night life. But walking though a noon-time mostly quiet park provided a respite and very pleasant opportunity to dust off my walking shoes.

I wonder where my next walking field trip will take me?

 

52 thoughts on “Resuming my walking field trips: Dia de Los Muertos Los Angeles

  1. Thanks for this fascinating field trip, beautiful Debra – it’s full of details of which I had no idea.
    The very concept of having another country on one’s doorstep fills me with wonder .. What a chance to expand one’s horizons !

    • Thank you for sharing some appreciation for the cultural context on my doorstep, M-R. There are so many competing people groups in the Los Angeles area and at times I think it’s easy to almost be blind to the traditions that are not “our own,” which is a loss. I’ve learned so much from my neighbors who represent countries all over the world. Dia de los Muertos is so colorful, I don’t think anyone could miss it! 🙂

  2. That’s pretty amazing! Our ethnicity celebrates the dead by putting beautiful flowers on the graves. If you go through a church cemetery around November 1st you will see gorgeous arrangements.

    • Is the date intended to be in tandem with All Saints Day, Kate? And I wonder, too, if you are able to participate in this lovely and meaningful gesture? So often we don’t live where that’s possible. When I was a child we would take my grandmother from California to Mississippi every few years in the spring, where we’d “decorate the graves” of her family in conjunction with a date in May. It definitely made an impression on me. Thank you so much for sharing about your cultural richness.

    • I didn’t say anything to you at the time I read your colorful blog with the beautiful memories from Oaxaca, Janis, but I think the very day I read it I had either just been downtown or perhaps the next day! I would love to see the celebration in such an authentic locale. I can easily imagine it is spectacular! Thank you for reminding me to put that on my travel list. 🙂

  3. Beautiful photos of these alters. It’s a very contemplative and deeply meaningful walk through your photos. I, too, have learned about the traditons gradually. Thank you for this special post, Debra.

    • Thank you, Amy. We have so much to learn about how other cultures experience life and tributes associated with death, don’t we? I would suspect you see many Dia de los Muertos remembrances on display in Texas as well as we do. It is a fascinating and certainly colorful experience!

  4. Good to have you ‘out there’ again, Debbie. I have to admit I find the celebration ghoulish, and didn’t appreciate the symbolism, nor the significance of the marigolds. For me, going to the cemetery with the family to light candles is a more natural way to remember, but I can’t dismiss a tradition going back so far. Whatever brings comfort. Thanks, hon!

    • Yes, think Aztecs, and you get a sense of the historical legacy of this tradition, Jo. The celebration is time-bound, and remains close to All Souls Day and All Saints Day. For the devout, the candle services and more liturgical and “quiet” motions are celebrated in a Mass, following days of celebration and remembrance. I think Angelenos have perhaps “co-opted” some of the party aspects of the celebration without understanding the deeper layers of meaning.

      It’s very nice to hear from you and I have wondered if you were returning to blogging? I recall you were starting a new one, and hope that I haven’t somehow just overlooked a new web address? Do let me know if you are ready for a “follow?”

  5. My brother sent me pictures of the alter my sister-in- law for our families this year. So beautiful and so many memories. I love the tradition.

    • Oh wow, Catherine. That’s really something! I am so glad to hear from you and agree that the tradition can be really beautiful. It is full of meaning, and that’s the most important aspect. I hope you are well, my friend!

    • Thank you, Frank. It is always a joy to me when I can get outdoors and explore! So many people are still working from home and downtown Los Angeles is quiet in comparison to what it was 2019. It made the experience a little unusual, but also allowed for an exceptionally nice afternoon! All is well. Always nice to meet you here. 🙂

  6. Debra, thank you for sharing this. I am very drawn to these beliefs and traditions. I am not well educated about them in any way. But I appreciate the connections, the remembrance, the importance this has in many peoples hearts.

    • I’m glad to know, but not surprised that you’re sensitive to the traditions and rituals that hold meaning and accompany this Mexican tradition. I think when we hold our memories and honor them with a tradition we find a way, and sometimes it is very nice to borrow a tradition from another culture and share in that beauty. I’m sure I only understand a small part of the tradition myself, Colleen. I’m encouraged to learn more, though! 😉

      • How much grace is in that? The desire to learn more about others and their customs. I do enjoy the learning. And there are so many we can never run out of new customs and traditions to discover!

  7. I so love this post. The first time I ever saw a Mexican market was in Los Angeles. I had never tried Mexican food, had no idea about their culture. It all looked so colorful, so happy and I knew nothing about it. Over the years I learned more and more about it. When we lived in Texas I even had Mexican neighbors who shared part of their Holiday traditions with us.

    You captures the tradition, the colors, the ‘spirits’ nicely.

    • Thank you for sharing your memorable impressions of the Mexican traditions and culture experienced in Los Angeles, Bridget. It truly makes me smile because I can put myself in your place and picture how unique it may have seemed to your experience up to that point. I think it’s a joy to learn and share with neighbors and holidays and food are shareable and open us to learning more about each other. I hope by our simple sharing experiences perhaps we make small bridges anyway. ❤️

  8. Nice post. I’m always interested in Mexican culture. We’re usually in Mexico for Dia de Los Muertos, but haven’t gone the last two years. Next year! But we have been in SoCal for the last three weeks. We begin the journey back to Oregon tomorrow. I miss my dog. 🙂

    • I would love to one day be in Mexico during the celebrations, Jim. I do hope you will be able to return next year! I hope you enjoyed your three weeks and I’m sure your dog has missed you, too! 😉

  9. That was fascinating, Debra! So interesting to learn about something I would see regularly yet peripherally when I lived in So Cal. Thanks to you, I am much better informed. I look forward to spending some time to look more closely when I come across this again. Funny about marigolds!

    • I am sure I miss many of the important aspects, Gail, but I am interested and may learn more through the years. What I do feel is that there’s a lot to be gained in following traditions that keep our loved ones close through ritual. I’m always so glad to hear from you, dear friend. ❤️

  10. Sounds great! Glad to hear you can get out there again. Not too much of that here in Reno. In San Jose there were always some great places to see Dia de los Muertos things. Thanks for the pictures.

    • I suppose the closer one lives to the border the more opportunity there is for cultural exchange. Locally even our Trader Joe’s sells iconic skulls and marigold-themed centerpieces. But I feel uneasy that so many people see the items and dismiss them as contributions to Halloween. I’m sure that was me for years! Thank you for stopping by, Andrew.

  11. I am glad you feel like venturing out into the world and into life again Debra. All Saints’ Day is also a day for remembering the dead here, and the graves are adorned with rather sombre wreaths and dried flowers, not at all as colourful or vivid as those in your pictures! This custom does however remind me of the Shinto or Buddhist shrines I saw in Japan outside homes, with lights and food and flowers or other small useful things to help the souls on their way to…. wherever. 😃 Lovely to hear about traditions from far away places. They offer comfort and peace of mind to those grieving.

    • Thank you, Cathy, for sharing your experience with ritual and meaningful ways to observe traditions in the grieving process, or respectfully paying homage to those we lose. I think the typical American experience is enhanced by the multicultural influx of people bringing their traditions with them. The American response to death is turned towards denying it! Maybe that’s in part why I’m drawn to some of the very overt symbols in this Mexican tradition. 🙂

  12. Great to hear that you are resuming your trips out and about Debra. And what a wonderful way to start with the beautiful Day of the Dead celebrations! 🙂

    Rituals surrounding the souls of the departed are very common. In my Wife’s Shona culture, the Ancestors are revered and steps are taken to ensure that they are happy, especially when things are not going right. Traditions are very strictly observed to ensure that the Ancestors are kept happy.

    Halloween has once again been celebrated although I doubt that many of those dressing up and trick or treating actually know anything of the origins of their night out. The festival was started in the 7th century by the Christian church as All Saints Day – it was a way of making sure that those saints that didn’t have their own day were still celebrated. The church encouraged the belief that on All Saints Eve the souls of the departed returned to be among us again in the glory of the Lord. A concept that in the minds of the un-educated and superstitious people at that time meant that ghosts, ghouls and other undead things walked on All Saints Eve. In old English, a Hallow is a Soul or a Saint – and so it was known as All Hallows Eve. From there it’s only a small step to Halloween and people dressing to represent the undead – sadly, nowhere near as dignified as the Mexican celebration 😦

    I hope you enjoy your trips out Debra – We are now, I think, in a world where Covid and Flu will both be annual vaccinations for the older members of society. I guess we will have to live with it! Stay safe and well 🙂

  13. Wonderful post, Debra. We’ve attended a few Day of the Dead celebrations around here ~ I find the altars quite touching. I was allowed to make a remembrance flag to hang for my recently departed father. Touching and sad.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • That’s wonderful, Nancy. It is a sweet way to take the time for reflection on both our happy memories as well as the pain of loss. We have talked about perhaps being more intentional next year in participating in a more public display. I agree with you that many of the altars are truly touching. ❤️

  14. Fascinating, Debra and thanks for this insight into a different culture. Glad to hear you are “mingling” once again, I still find “mingling” a bit scary especially as many people now behave as if the pandemic is over in the UK

    • Thank you, Philip. There are many customs and traditions represented in our multicultural city that I am sure I overlook, not intentionally, but Dia de Los Muertos celebrations and rituals would be very hard to miss. I enjoyed sharing. And I’m still very cautious as well, but to the dismay of some, yet my relief, Los Angeles has very strict mandates and mask protocols in place. It helps me feel like I can move about with some freedom, but mostly outdoors.

  15. Dear Debra, thank you for displaying these photographs, for giving explanations about the celebration, and for sharing with us your growing appreciation of this tradition. I knew nothing about it as I’ve never lived where there was a large population of citizens with Hispanic/Mexican ancestry.

    On PBS this month, I’ve been able to watch many programs about the indigenous people of this continent and specifically about the arrogance of the immigrants (my ancestors) who came to this land, pushed back the native people, and embraced genocide. A recent program detailed the reclaiming of three bodies by the Arapaho Nation from the Carlisle School. It was both heartbreaking in its history and triumphant in the fortitude of the Arapaho people. Peace.

  16. Debra, the “anonymous” comment is from me–Dee Ready. My hand slipped and it got published before I’d put in my name! Peace.

  17. Hi Debra. What a beautiful tradition — and your photos and words beautifully explain the traditions. In Fort Lauderdale, there are also events for this day, but I think they have a more festive tone. I admit I’ve never attended the event — mostly because it always seems to sneak up on me, and the past two years have been difficult (as I’m sure you know). You’ve inspired me to investigate further next year — hopefully, COVID will let me. Stay well, my friend.

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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