MISSION HILLS — Standing by an altar filled with mementos of her father, Cyndi Carrizal-Ondrusek recounted stories of Daniel Carrizal's youth on Sunday.
Carrizal-Ondrusek of Burbank said she was celebrating her father's life in observance of a centuries-old Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. Her altar was among dozens erected in Brand Park for the San Fernando Valley Latino Arts Council's seventh annual Dia de los Muertos festival.
The event, sponsored in part by state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), City Councilman Alex Padilla and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, drew hundreds of people honoring dead loved ones. Contrary to the morbid images evoked by its name, the day was filled with music, food, colorful stories and laughter.
"Death is another, better form of life," said Eloise Rodriguez of Sun Valley. "Mexicans don't fear death. When you die, you're really just starting to live. The physical body is a box the spirit uses to do things on earth. And when that body dies, the spirit lives. So we learn to laugh in the face of death."
Her father turned to humor to cope, Carrizal-Ondrusek said.
Carrizal, the handsome son of Mexican farm workers, used practical jokes to lighten the mood when work got tough, his daughter said. One of his favorite pranks was tricking his 11 siblings into drinking goat's milk, she said.
The day also brought back bittersweet memories for Carrizal-Ondrusek. Her father died 12 years ago of an alcoholism-related disease--"too soon, too hard to understand," she said.
Residents also had a chance to revisit their roots and rediscover a culture that is distant for some Mexican Americans who settled in California several generations ago.
Blanca Mena, a freshman at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, knows that Mexican ancestry begins with the ancient Aztecs--a lesson she was required to master before she and her dance troupe, Van Nuys-based Danza Azteca, learned to perform the ceremonial dance honoring Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Dead.
Mena and her fellow dancers took the stage wearing brightly colored costumes and elaborate headdresses made of peacock feathers. They strapped on chachayotes, anklets adorned with music-making dried lemons, and danced to entertain the spirits of the dead.
Carrizal-Ondrusek, who barely speaks Spanish, said that in preparing her father's altar, she recently learned that her grandparents were sharecroppers in Houston.
"I never knew that," she said. "This gives me a chance to rediscover my culture and what my ancestors went through."
Rodriguez, who has attended the festival the past four years, said that observance of tradition is crucial to sustaining Mexican culture among the younger generations.
"This is a way to really feel our people," she said. "You miss loved ones who passed away and you don't want your children to forget about them. This festival is about passing on their memories and about keeping the culture alive."