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A Day for the Dead -- and Living -- Draws Revelers to Cemetery

Los Angeles

Several thousand people, some dressed as skeletons or Death, observe a favorite Latin American holiday.

October 27, 2002|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Below the lush grass, the skeletons at Hollywood Forever Cemetery are resting for all eternity.

But on Saturday, above ground, the skeletons danced. They waved, laughed, ate and walked hand in hand with children. They greeted visitors at the cemetery's gates, or peeked out playfully from behind the bronze doors of mausoleums.

It was a day for the dead, as the living gathered to remember the departed to honor one of Latin America's most beloved holidays, the odd and ancient celebration known as Dia de Los Muertos.

"We celebrate death, and we celebrate life!" one skeleton in a top hat yelled.

Although the Day of the Dead is observed on Nov. 2, Hollywood Forever's third annual festival drew several thousand people, some dressed as skeletons or Death himself.

The festival featured several stages with bands playing traditional Mexican folk music, stop-and-go short plays performed by local theater companies, rows of handicrafts and face-painting stands--skeleton masks, of course.

But lavish altars attracted the most attention. They were decorated with candles, pictures of the deceased and lots of orange cenpazuchilt flowers, the customary Day of the Dead blossom better known as marigolds.

"It's a tradition," said event coordinator Daisy Marquez. "You can do an altar for your loved one. It doesn't matter where the body is; the souls are free, right?"

One altar at the base of a massive mausoleum was dedicated to Hattie McDaniel, the actress who won an Oscar for her role in "Gone With the Wind," but who was not allowed to be buried at Hollywood Forever because she was black.

Artist Juan Sigala used at least 200 candles and several bouquets of marigolds to create his homage to McDaniel. The offering at her side was bread laid out in the shape of a cross.

"She always wanted to be buried here," Sigala said.

So whose grave is it that McDaniel's altar sits upon? "I don't know, and I hope the family doesn't show up."

With roots dating back hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas, the Day of the Dead is celebrated mostly in Mexico to honor both those who have died and the continuity of life. That means, in a way, mocking death, hence the jolly skeleton costumes.

Young hipsters, curious couples and Latino families meandered through the memorial park.

"I love this; it really is the most creative of holidays," said Janis Helbert, 55, who wore a black plush cape and came to visit a friend recently buried at the cemetery.

"Ten, 15 years ago this would have been a little too farfetched," said Kerry Hogan, 36. "But people have assimilated the new culture with their own."

Beginning this weekend, events are planned all over the region, at sites ranging from artsy cafes and galleries in Silver Lake to municipal parks in East Los Angeles and Santa Ana. There are art shows, workshops on how to make paper flowers and masks, political gatherings, performances for local neo-Latin bands and Aztec dance companies, and of course, traditional festivals like that at Hollywood Forever.

"It's very fitting," said Gabriela Cantero, 35, as she watched Aztec dancers drum before an altar honoring deceased Latino movie stars including Rita Hayworth.

Nearby, Yesenea Zavala toiled over her husband's unmarked grave.

"I used to think, why Day of the Dead? Why celebrate something like death? But after my husband died, I feel like death is just a passing to an eternal life," Zavala said. "I am not afraid of death anymore, and now I celebrate Day of the Dead."

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