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Soul Searching

For Day of the Dead, families adorn altars with mementos to lure spirits back to this world.


When members of the San Fernando Valley Latino Arts Council created the annual Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead festival five years ago, they had the young ones in mind.

"We didn't want the kids to forget their culture," said organizer Leonard Negrete. "Young kids today will forget if you don't help them preserve it, and if just one generation forgets, the whole tradition is gone."

So each year around Halloween, the council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Latino culture through the arts, puts on a free festival on the grounds of historic Andres Pico Adobe in Mission Hills.

The large bash includes altar exhibits, music, dance, theater performances and lots of food.

There's also an exhibit in which children from four local elementary schools display their Dia de los Muertos art creations.

Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the spirits of the dead returning to share the good things in life.

Its origins are in pre-Columbian times, when relatives of a deceased loved one would build an altar to the gods, adorned with mementos of the deceased.

The day is a joyous celebration of life after death that is said to be a combination of Catholic All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

So the highlight of Sunday's festival will be the altars designed by families and dedicated to their loved ones. Each one will tell a different story with personal touches.

"We'll have eight or nine of them and they'll include photos of the people who have passed and things like a guitar or whiskey if that's what they liked," Negrete said.

The idea, he says, is that the spirits are allowed to come back on this special day, but must be lured by the things they enjoyed in life.

"You have to entice the spirits," Negrete said. "That's why the altars have things they like."

There will also be plenty of festive activities on the scenic adobe's two acres of grounds. The Spanish mission-style house was named for Mexican general Andres Pico and is believed to have been built in 1834.

It will be decorated for the occasion and occupied by a stage, arts and crafts booths and food stations.

Entertainment will feature performances by Chicano theater groups, Ballet Folklorico dancers from UCLA and Cal State Northridge, lots of Mariachi music, Aztec dancing and a Peruvian flute group.

More than two dozen professional Latino artists will display their work, which includes photos, paintings and sculptures. None of their creations will be for sale, though. The idea is to give the artists exposure.

"We want kids to see there are successful Latino artists," Negrete said. "We want them to identify and we want to give them something to be proud of."

A separate section will have arts and crafts for sale and lots of traditional Mexican food such as tamales.

For young children there will be continuous face painting and art instruction to help them create their own masks and skeletons.

At dusk a priest will bless the altars, and a procession of the dead will follow. It will include costumed participants depicting interpretations of death. Members of the public are welcome to participate in the procession, provided they wear costumes.

The procession was added to the agenda this year and so was an area dedicated to poetry readings.

"The festival will end with a blessing by a priest for all," Negrete said.

The focus will be on the kids who must carry on the tradition for years to come.


The fifth annual San Fernando Valley Latino Arts Council Dia de los Muertos celebration Sunday, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Andres Pico Adobe, 10904 Sepulveda Blvd. (at Brand) in Mission Hills. Admission is free. Information: (818) 361-4216.

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