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Latino Holiday for the Dead Is Alive in L.A.

October 29, 1987|JIM SEALE

Dias de los Muertos , Days of the Dead, a traditional Latino holiday that coincides with the Halloween season, is alive in Los Angeles.

Although less publicly celebrated (because many elements of the traditional observance, such as all-night vigils in cemeteries, are often forbidden in the United States), the holiday is being perpetuated by the constant influx of Mexican immigrants and, in recent years, organized efforts to stimulate ethnic pride.

In 1972, a group of Mexican artists under the auspices of Self-Help Graphics, an East L.A. community arts organization, held L.A.'s first public Days of the Dead event. It included a parade from the organization's East L.A. offices to nearby Evergreen Cemetery, then back to the offices for a festival. The organization also has held summer classes for children in making traditional Days of the Dead toys and masks and has organized instructional programs in local schools regarding the holiday.

Children took readily to Days of the Dead and enjoyed it, though a few parents were a bit put off by it, reported Sister Karen Baccalero, a Roman Catholic nun who is the administrator of Self-Help Graphics and its Dias de los Muertos programs.

Positive Message

Days of the Dead, which many begin celebrating the latter part of October, culminates on the Roman Catholic Feast of All Souls, Nov. 2. All aspects of the celebration sound and look scarier than Halloween; its central visual symbol is a grinning skull, while its Anglo cousin is a more benignly smiling jack-o'-lantern. But its adherents point out that it offers a more positive message, as well as a needed way of dealing with fears about death.

"Halloween is about evoking terror and fear, while Days of the Dead laughs in the face of death," said Miguel Dominguez, chairman of Cal State Dominguez Hills' Mexican-American studies program and a local expert on the holiday. Dominguez said the trappings of the holiday, which include toys in the form of skeletons dressed as everything from doctors to rock stars, "remind one that death is an inevitable part of the life process, and that we should respect death and enjoy life at the same time."

With renewed interest in the preservation of ethnic traditions, many Latinos in their 30s and 40s who never celebrated the holiday while growing up are creating traditional Days of the Dead altars in their homes. On the altars they place photographs of deceased relatives and personal items or special foods those relatives particularly liked. Often they hang the altars with marigolds, a flower identified in Mexico with death, and decorate them with skulls and other images of mortality.

Homages at Graves

Elaborate homages of marigolds and paper cutouts will be hung over gravestones in cemeteries. Some shops will sell calaveras de azucar, or sugar skulls. Eastside bakeries will be selling out of their pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, baked in the form of a fat little man.

For Yreina Cervantez, a UCLA graduate student, Days of the Dead is a time when she can emotionally get in touch with loved ones who have died. The altar in her Echo Park apartment contains, among other things, photos of her grandparents "and other people close to me that I particularly want to remember. The altar gives me a focus for remembering them."

And observing Days of the Dead also puts her in touch with her ethnic heritage.

"I see the holiday in spiritual terms, but also in political terms. It's a very rich cultural expression from Mexico, and for so long anything that wasn't from the mainstream culture was really discouraged. And this brings back some of those rich old forms," Cervantez said.

There are signs that the non-Latin community is discovering Days of the Dead. Several Westside stores do a brisk business year-round in Days of the Dead novelty items like the sugar skulls and skeleton toys. Owners of galleries that specialize in Mexican folk art say there are many affluent Westsiders who are serious collectors of the more elaborate Days of the Dead toys as art pieces. And several L.A. galleries are exhibiting Days of the Dead art this year.

Baccalero, Dominguez and others believe the new-found Anglo fascination with the death symbols stems from Anglo society currently lacking customs or institutions to deal positively with death.

"It has gotten to where we don't deal with death, we sweep it under the rug," Baccalero said. "But now, with a focus on people with terminal illnesses, we're reminded that we're all mortal. Days of the Dead gives us a way, at least once a year, to acknowledge that and even celebrate it."

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