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Old tradition, new places to celebrate it

The spread of Day of the Dead observances across the Southland is another sign of how diverse the region is.

October 29, 2010|Hector Tobar

Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary in Whittier isn't the sort of place you'd expect to stumble upon a loud party.

But on Saturday I went there and heard cumbias and ranchera music blasting at 90 decibels. I bought a burrito at one of two food trucks, too, and a snow cone for my daughter, who had her face painted just a few yards from a tombstone-covered lawn.

The event was billed as "the first annual Rose Hills Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos celebration." In its own small way, it signaled some very big changes, including a shift in the way many Angelenos commune with their memories of the departed.

"To be honest, I never thought I'd see this in Rose Hills or in Whittier," said Maggie Ramos, 59, who, like me, is old enough to remember Whittier as the conservative, WASP bastion it once was. "It just goes to show you how diverse we've become."

My divorced mother once married into a white Whittier family. One member of that family is buried at Rose Hills and another, my late stepfather, took his life there in a moment of despair almost two decades ago.

I grew up in South Whittier and remembered Rose Hills as an austere place, with rows of grave markers in identical sizes and silences deep enough to hear the wind whistling through the pine branches.

On Saturday that same cemetery hosted a colorful Latin American cultural rite, American style. Día de los Muertos is a tradition that was born centuries ago in Mexico as a hybrid of Catholic and indigenous practices. In the U.S., it's been reinvented as public art festival.

"In a few minutes, we'll be announcing the winners of our altar contest," a voice blared out on a sound system near the hilltop SkyRose Chapel. "And now, más música!"

I'll admit that, at first, the idea of Día de los Muertos at Rose Hills struck me as something of a joke. I figured that if Day of the Dead had reached this deep into L.A. suburbia, with more celebrations scheduled in Canoga Park, Alhambra and other places, it must mean the holiday was becoming hopelessly commercialized.

I imagined an autumn version of Cinco de Mayo, that tacky beer-company-sponsored celebration that assaults us every spring.

But it hasn't quite become that, not yet, because at Rose Hills, as elsewhere in America, people are embracing this old Mexican tradition as a new way to remember the lives of their loved ones.

"I think it's only right to celebrate his life, because he was so full of life," said Patricia Scott, as she stood before a family-built Day of the Dead altar dedicated to her husband, Whittier resident Richard Donald Scott. It was one of a dozen or so at the Rose Hills event.

Richard Scott was 45 when he died of renal failure in May. His sister Deborah built the altar in the traditional Mexican way. She surrounded his framed portrait with marigolds, small painted skulls and tokens to the things he loved in life, including a toy replica of his first car, a blue Dodge Challenger, and a bottle of Snapple, his favorite drink.

The Scotts are Mexican Americans with roots in East L.A., but they had never celebrated Day of the Dead before.

"We were married for 20 years," Patricia Scott told me as she wiped tears from her eyes. "It would have been 21 in September."

The Scotts shared their family story with passersby and cried a bit, but laughed more. "He'd be happy that we were all out here remembering him," said his niece, Catherine Gonzalez.

Jerry Fajardo died four years ago, at the age of 59. Biking was his passion. And on Saturday he rode again.

The Fajardos took his old helmet and placed it atop a life-size cartoon skeleton. They sat the skeleton on his old bike in front of an altar.

Jerry's sister Diana Fajardo told me she built the first family Day of the Dead altar to him three years ago, in her La Verne living room. Each year the process of assembling the altar is cathartic, she said.

The family takes his old UPS uniform out of the closet and gathers up old portraits, including one of a teenage Jerry with a slicked-back, early '60s pompadour. "He was a dude," said Stella, his wife of 42 years, who met Jerry at Los Altos High in Hacienda Heights.

For the Rose Hills altar, Stella had agreed to take his bike out of the garage for the first time. That was painful because Jerry was riding the bike when he had the stroke that eventually killed him.

Standing before Jerry's altar, I could see the broad sweep of his life, and feel the tragedy of his death and the love his family will have for him always.

Everything that was moving about the memorials built by the Fajardos and other families more than made up for the kitschier aspects of the Rose Hills festival, which included an altar to Michael Jackson decorated with a can of Pepsi.

"Look, a plate of chicken mole," I said as I stood before that altar. "I didn't know Michael ate mole."

"He probably didn't even know what it was," sneered Eva Ucanan, 66.

Juan Huerta, a Whittier resident who came to the event with his young daughter, remembered a very different kind of Day of the Dead in his native Mexico City. There, each family celebrates at their loved ones' graves. "When I was a kid, I made a few pesos going to the cemeteries to scrub off the tombstones," he said. The holiday is more private than public.

At the Rose Hills event, there were vendors and corporate sponsors, but it didn't bother Huerta, who said, "I expected something more Americanized."

On Day of the Dead in L.A., marigolds and sugar skulls meet bicycles and Dodge Challengers, and there's dancing and face painting for the kids. It's not exactly the way the Mexicans do it, but no one seemed to care. All they wanted was to be a little closer to their dead, and to bring them back into life's party, even if just for a day.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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