The holiday is the Mexican Dia de los Muertos--Day of the Dead--but the observance has a definite L.A. accent.
In Studio City, a group of women attending an art workshop learn how to decorate the traditional sugar skulls that evoke the memories of the departed. Beth Sax takes a skull and carefully writes "P. Diana" for the late princess.
In a Venice gallery, artist Rigo Maldonado lights the candles at a Day of the Dead altar covered with traditional Mexican altar elements, bright marigolds and the Virgin Mary among them.
But the altar's centerpiece is a silhouette with a modern American political message: a father, mother and a small girl holding hands running--images meant to honor immigrants killed in the trek north.
Maldonado, a UCLA student, and Sax, who works promoting art, embody the American transformation of Dia de los Muertos, a quintessential Mexican holiday with roots in Aztec culture.
Just as Halloween has made inroads into Mexican culture--to the alarm of many Mexicans--the Day of the Dead is becoming more widely observed north of the border, but in a uniquely American way.
Non-Latinos, as well as Mexican Americans, are decorating sugar skulls and erecting altars. They're even honoring deceased pets.
And yes, there's also a web site altar that can be visited via computer.
"That's the way America takes culture," said Tomas Benitez, director of Self Help Graphics and Art Inc. in East Los Angeles, which has displayed Day of the Dead works over the years. "Chicanos have adopted it here. We have maintained its integrity but given it the American twist."
"The reason it's becoming more popular is because the U.S. doesn't have an equivalent holiday," said Angela Villalba, 38, who owns the Reign Trading Co. in Studio City, where Sax participated in the workshop.
Last year about 10 people came to one class. This year, close to 150 paid $35 each to attend sessions where they ate a dinner of tamales--vegetarian or meat-filled--watched a video about the holiday and decorated sugar skulls.
The origins of the Day of the Dead stretch back to folklore practices of central Mexico about 2,000 years ago, said Miguel Dominguez, a professor of Spanish at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
By the 16th century, the Aztecs had long believed death was the permanent human state and should not be feared. A person's life was merely a temporary dream. They observed the holiday around the same time the Catholic Church observed All Souls Day--so when Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes arrived in 1519, the holidays merged.
Today, in the states of Michoacan and Oaxaca, the holiday is a happy yet spiritual time. To mock death, people give one another sugar skulls bearing the recipients' names.
And to entice the spirits, families adorn altars with fresh fruits, the deceased's favorite foods and drinks and a specially baked bread known as pan de muertos--bread for the dead. In the night they go to the cemeteries to await the spirits: According to tradition, the souls of children descend the first night, Nov. 1, and adults come the second.
"We Mexicans are very sentimental," said artist Joel Garcia, 41, recently as he worked in a Pasadena studio he visits to make Day of the Dead art he sells here. "Here . . . children even go to another state to go to college. We want to be close to our family even when they're dead."
In the United States, assimilation had nearly erased the holiday from Mexican American culture until the Chicano movement of the 1960s, Dominguez said. "In many ways, Americanization was de-Mexicanization. We realized we were getting rid of something that was very beautiful."
The renewed interest was chiefly among artists who popularized it with displays and processions at galleries and public places.
"It's been the artists that have brought the holiday out to the larger community," said Olivia Armas, the archivist at Galeria De La Raza in San Francisco's Mission District, which began celebrations in the early 1970s.
Conveying the spirituality of the day was not easy.
In 1992, the gallery canceled a yearly procession that had grown to about 10,000 participants of all races, partly because it was too big for the gallery to finance. Also, many participants, dressed in costumes, did not seem to differentiate Dia de los Muertos from Halloween.
"It's unfortunate that other people have missed the point," Armas said.
The procession did show one American spin on the Day of the Dead. In Mexico, it is a private time, a time for family. In the United States, it's becoming very public.
And in Los Angeles this weekend, various altars and public celebrations can be found, from the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach to The Folk Tree in Pasadena.
Maldonado, 24, said his altar, on display at the Social and Public Art Resource Center, is a reaction to the passage of Propositions 187 and 209--the anti-illegal immigration and affirmative action measures.