San Gabriel High School
In 2011, Kris Fortin wrote about Dia de Los Muertos, and how he'd just begun to understand the myriad layers of the celebration. He wrote to us recently to say that, shortly after the article was published, his family erected an alter for his deceased grandmother in their home. "It wasn't the elaborate and colorful types filled with papel picado or sugar skulls, but it was adorned with a photo collage of my grandmother as young as her 20s, until near her death," wrote Fortin. He currently volunteers at an AmeriCorps VISTA that is partnered with NeighborWorks Orange County, a non-profit strengthens communities through housing, financial management, and civic engagement. The work takes him away from home. "Every time I return to Orange County, my mom always takes me to the alter and prays for me to have a good week, a safe journey, and asks my grandmother to take care of me," wrote Fortin.
My family has Mexican heritage, but Dia de Los Muertos — or the Day of the Dead — was not a holiday I celebrated growing up in Alhambra. Rather than creating altars or hanging skeleton figurines, we paid tribute to our deceased by attending mass for one hour with the Catholic equivalent, All Souls. My mother, who lived as a young child in a small pueblo in Southern Mexico, explained to me that Day of the Dead was an indigenous holiday — and not something from our background.
Not until two years ago, when I was 22, did I attend my first Dia de los Muertos celebration at Self Help Graphic and Art’s former home in City Terrace. The spiky-haired punks, the ponytailed Chicanos, and the ladies in flower-embroidered dresses were out in full force with their faces painted like the dead. Dia de los Muertos, which falls on November 2 each year, goes back thousands of years. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they encountered the Aztec people holding a two-month long celebration honoring death, the fall harvest and the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead). At Self Help Graphics, I came as an observer to a Southern California adaptation of the tradition, and basically enjoyed a good party.
This year I decided to partake, and I waited a half hour in line to paint my face like a skeleton. Around me swirled the hip Latino scene with two stages for music, handmade quilts hung like gallery art, and street vendors selling churros and bacon-wrapped hot dogs. As I listened to artist Maya Jupiter spitting rhymes to close out the night, I felt like I was part of a vibrant festival, but despite the macabre focus I did not feel like I had found a spiritual connection to the holiday.
On Saturday, at San Gabriel High School, I found something different: a community gathering where people of all ages and backgrounds connected to lost loved ones. The Alhambra Latino Association hosted the Dia de Los Muertos-Celebration of Life festival. Two years ago, interested in trying something new and increasing student involvement, ALA changed its usual Christmas themed scholarship fundraiser to one for the Day of the Dead. All afternoon, kids created sugar skulls, paper hairpin flowers and paper masks, while adults browsed the artisan crafts being sold.
The altars are what changed the experience for me: Each one, though simple, was a sincere tribute linking the person to someone who had died. Jesse Escoto made an altar for his mother with the help of his girlfriend. He placed some seashells and lipstick in front of his mother’s baby and prom photo because those were things she liked. Escoto’s mother Michelle Sarayor died two years ago of natural causes. She was 46.
Nearby was an altar with hand-drawn images by Marguerita Elementary kindergarten students of a person or pet they knew that died. Five-year-old Bronson Avalos drew a picture of his aunt’s dog Lucy. Avalos thinks the dog just went away, his aunt Theresa Cedeno explained, and though he doesn’t fully comprehend death, his lessons in his class about Dia de Los Muertos has brought him solace.
I found a place to contribute on a communal altar, writing a dedication to my grandmother on a Popsicle stick. As I did so, I realized that I rarely think of her in the almost five years since she passed away, and I started to forget how little I knew her.
I was not the only one moved to be really experiencing a connection to Dia de los Muertos for the first time. My mother accompanied me. When I placed a tribute on the community altar, it was also a moment to see that my mom still missed my grandmother, who died five years ago. My mom told me she prays for her every morning, something I never knew. “Maria Mancilla, abuela y mama,” I wrote on the stick. For both of us, we decided it was a tradition that we wanted in our lives, indigenous or not.
Next year when we make our first altar, we plan to place as an offering for my grandmother a bar of manteca, or cooking lard. She would hate the thought of cooking with anything else.