Day of the Dead celebrations in U.S. get local, modern twist

For the first time in her life, Yazmin Garcia was wearing sugar-skull makeup on her face for the Day of the Dead festivities in Los Angeles.

“Since my mom passed away, I wanted to remember her in a different way,” Garcia, 21, said, while surrounded by an abundance of smiling skulls, vibrant marigolds and scented candles at the Olvera Street marketplace in downtown L.A.

Garcia’s face has been painted with the make-up details that have become popular for the Day of the Dead celebration in the United States: black circles on her eyes surrounded by red and black dots and black stitches around her mouth.

“We have an altar for her at the house, but I wanted to come and dress up and stuff,” she added.

Her friend Adriana Comado also has had her face sugar-painted, but with more colorful details. While she won’t be remembering any dead loved ones, she says she is attending the festivities “to experience and celebrate our culture.”

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Just like Garcia and Comado, thousands of Latinos in California participate in Day of the Dead festivities at this time of the year, when family and friends come together to celebrate those who have passed away.

But while some of the events follow the traditional celebrations held on November 1st and 2nd in Mexico – where it is a national holiday – some Californian communities have added local and modern elements to the occasion.

While other states in the U.S. also have Day of the Dead festivities, some say they are not celebrated with the same intensity or fervor as California.

More than 50 events are scheduled to take place this year in different cities of the Golden State, from San Francisco to San Diego, between Oct. 25 and Nov. 2.

Many of these will feature the traditional altar-making and processions as well as musical performances and food vendors and, in Hollywood, conventional altars are set up side-by-side with altars to 1950s sex-symbol, actress Jayne Mansfield.

More than 40 altars feature on the grounds of the Grand Park, in downtown L.A., along with Day of the Dead-themed sculptures created by Southern California artists that explore different time periods in the celebration of the holiday, illustrating its evolution over time.

“We have to change with the times but also honor tradition,” said Cristina Mariscal Pasten, a merchant at Olvera Street market, where a “Novenario,” nine nights of procession and prayers, began on Sunday but will also host arts and crafts workshops for children, street theater performances and live mariachi bands.

“We really have taken an ancient tradition that is mixed with a Catholic tradition and a modern twist, and that’s how we celebrate on Olvera Street,” she adds.

The origins of the modern Day of the Dead celebration has been traced to indigenous observances at the beginning of summer, dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl.

After the Spanish colonization of Mexico in the 16th century, the celebration was moved to Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 to coincide with the Roman Catholic All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day.

Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars or “ofrendas” honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting their graves with these as gifts.

“It is an ancient tradition that has been adapted to different social contexts,” explained Lara Medina, who teaches Chicano history and religion at California State University, Northridge.

“It is inevitable that the tradition changes,” she said.

Medina added that in California the celebration of the Day of the Dead was reclaimed by local artists and educators during the 1970s Chicano movement for civil rights.

“It was a heightened era of protest,” she notes. “Artists and social workers brought the tradition back in urban areas as a way to heal wounds within the Latino community.”

Since then, the celebration has grown bigger every year.  Professors have started teaching about it in elementary schools, high schools and at the college level, and more material has become available.

“You see it in museums, libraries and now also in the commercial arena,” added Medina, who believes the tradition is being challenged by its growing popularity. “Pop culture has taken what they like about it. Now there’s Day of the Dead tequila and Starbucks coffee being sold.”

“You can go to party stores and buy the image of the skeleton made in China and specifically for Day of the Dead. It takes away the experience of making art for your dead,” she said.

Every year, Old Town San Diego hosts a very traditional two-day celebration that ends with a candlelight procession to the historic El Campo Santo Cemetery.

But the tradition has become “more colorful” over the years, says Eric Minella, manager of historical interpretation at Fiesta de Reyes, one of the major sponsors of the event.

“It is my absolute favorite event of the year,” he adds. “It is a combination of the truly meaningful experience of honoring the dead, and it’s also so much fun.”

He added, “It honors the modern, the traditional and historic ways of celebrating the dead, because it is as much a fun celebration as it is a meaningful and religious experience.”