Dia de Los Muertos brings Los Angeles to life



Nestled in between Chinatown and Union Station, Olvera Street is a piece of history in an unexpected place. For nine days when October and November meet, its history spills beyond the borders of the small area during Dia de Los Muertos festivities held in the El Pueblo monument in Los Angeles Historic Park. Once a year, the dead roam over the century-old bricks. They dress as their ancestors did in folkloric costumes or as firefighters, monks and brides. They all share one thing: a skull mask to represent that despite differences, our vessel on this earth is a skeleton while the true self and soul is liberated when we pass on.

Before the procession starts, a line snakes through El Pueblo and into the street to be chastised by the tartalejos, a group of Mayan and Aztec blood who perform cleansing blessings with incense. A brass banda plays a brief mourning song, and then a song of celebration and remembrance. Altars with candles, flowers, shelving toys, foods, knickknacks and pictures are all unique representatives of the dead.

“It’s not meant to be scary but it’s meant to serve as a reminder of what life really is (and) …to really treasure life and embrace death in the fact that you can celebrate youth after,” said Christina Mariscal-Pasten, a member of a merchant family working on Olvera Street.

According to Mariscal-Pasten, Dia de los Muertos is one of the events maintained by the multi-generational guild of merchants at El Pueblo, and she has participated in the event every year since she was born. She said that the majority of the merchants who organize the event are 4th or even 6th generation merchants who have survived in the Pueblo since 1930 when Olvera street opened.

“This is the cuna, or the crib where all the fiestas began and that is why we try to preserve the event,” Norma Garcia, a 3rd generation merchant, said.

According to Garcia, the event celebrated in El Pueblo at the beginning of November is a blend of the Spanish and Aztec cultures. Mariscal- Pasten adds that there has always been a Los Angeles spin in the mix.

The traditional Mexican novenario is a spiritual series of nine days where families of the deceased recite the rosary for the release of a loved one’s soul from purgatory. However, the one-of-a-kind “Los Angeles twist” is that the merchants at Olvera Street welcome people of all beliefs to rejoice in the lives of their lost ones so that everyone in the community will have a chance to experience the celebration.

In the Olvera Street tradition, each night of the novenario honors a particular merchant’s family and a specific category of the deceased, may it be those lost during pregnancy, accidents or even suicide.

Different groups set up an altar dedicated not only to people, but even causes such as breast cancer or heart disease. In the past, these

community altars have honored the firefighters and police who died during 9/11.

“We do an altar, or ofrenda, where we put the picture of the deceased and everything they loved in life,” Garcia said. “If they loved to smoke, we put a cigarette.”

These ofrendas are similar to those in Mexican tradition, where families set up a miniature altar on the graves of the deceased after cleaning the headstone. They then create a trail of the symbolic marigold flower to the home, where a larger, more vivid altar blooms with more personal artifacts of the deceased. The spirit then follows the orange-golden trail of flora from the grave to the home to visit the family they left behind.

“So the spirits come back and visit you, not in a scary way but saying ‘thanks for remembering my favorite beer’ and they stay with you for the night,” Christina’s father, Mike Mariscal, said. “If they were a doctor, a nurse, or a teacher, you [make] a little fun (of) the fact that no matter who you are (when) we all die, we all become a skull in the long run,” Mariscal chuckled.

Mariscal emphasized that since children are exposed to death at such an early age in our modern society, the tradition serves as a cultural way to show them not to fear death but rather, celebrate life.

The sugar skulls that shroud the graves are all made differently to resemble the person being honored. They wear animate expressions to show that death is not sad, but simply the beginning to an eternal spiritual life.

“It’s a celebration not of death but of life, and it really is something spiritual but it can be for people of all walks of life…it’s something that allows you to have a sense of connection with somebody in the other world,” Mariscal said. “I think being able to remember somebody for whom they were, the life they lived and the lessons they taught you is beautiful. And why not do it in a big party sort of way?”

While the city of Los Angeles usually subsidizes the festivities, they have recently claimed it “the gift of public funds,” outlined in Article 16, section 6 of the California constitution.

According to Mariscal, the city attorney’s office has said that the funding for the event was cut, putting the merchant community in a tough situation with now only about a month to raise around $10,000 that would otherwise come from the merchants’ rents.

Now the event is open to bidders in an RFP process, in which large companies are invited to take over the event and their sponsors plaster advertisements over the tradition. These promoters have already taken advantage of El Pueblo’s Cinco de Mayo festivities.

“It’s a pretty drastic immediate situation and were really looking for help from the people to get the word,” Mariscal said.

Mariscal said that the Merchant’s Association is taking a stand against the city and the bidders, a battle that he compares to that of David and Goliath. He said it’s difficult because all the funds for the free event come straight from the merchants’ pockets, and he firmly believes that they have, and always will be, sponsor-free.

“Whoever the companies are…[they] make this place look like one big giant commercial, there is no historical significance to what they do,” Mariscal lamented, “they walk out of here with thousands of dollars in the manner that there is no history, no culture, no tradition.”

Despite their dire situation, the merchants have remained steadfast, surrounded by nylon-string, mini guitars and luchador masks to remind them of the importance of maintaining an ancient tradition amid the quickly commercializing world.