Day of the Dead newest US holiday, new book argues

Day of the Dead, the traditionally Latin American observance, is observed by a more diverse population.
Day of the Dead, the traditionally Latin American observance, is observed by a more diverse population.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2.0MB

The Day of the Dead, the Latin American observance that takes place Monday, hasn’t displaced Halloween in the U.S. However, a scholar argues in a new book that the observance is becoming this country’s newest holiday.

Altars to honor the deceased are going up these days in Southland art galleries, community centers, schools, and in many Latino homes. This week, middle schoolers created one at Dolores Mission School in Boyle Heights that looks, at first glance, like a typical Day of the Dead altar.

After school program coordinator Juanita Guillen said the teens carefully chose the bread, candles, marigolds, and sugar skulls. "We have also have pan de muerto, which is very traditional, and it’s also another offering to the dead. We have veladoras, just to kind of light their way in the afterlife."

A closer look reveals that this unique altar reflects on some troubles that have befallen this neighborhood in the last year. Guillen said the students asked to include a photo of classmate Jesus “Chuy” Sanchez. "He was killed last year after a family quinceañera and he attended here. He was in, I believe, 5th grade, and it really hit the kids really hard, so they thought it would be great to bring some of those pictures in."

Emilia Alfaro was at the school to pick up her 11-year-old son Brajan, who helped decorate a sugar skull. Earlier this year their family moved to L.A. from a small city in El Salvador, where people only celebrate Day of the Dead at the local cemetery. The altar and its location are unusual, she said in Spanish, but she likes it. "Yes, it's pretty because it's uncommon. I like that it gives the kids a chance to participate."

Rutgers University scholar Regina Marchi, author of Day of the Dead in the USA, said Alfaro’s observance of Day of the Dead was the dominant practice in Latin America until about 40 years ago. That’s when young Mexican-American artists who visited Mexico to recharge their cultural batteries brought the tradition back to the United States.

"It started off in the '70s, really mainly in California, right, 'specially in San Francisco and Los Angeles, then it went to Sacramento and other parts of California, then kind of spread over kind of to the Southwest and Texas in terms of the exhibits, art exhibits, museum exhibits, the community centers doing the celebrations."

Now it’s not uncommon to see altars in states far from California and dedicated to deceased civil rights and cultural leaders, to victims of AIDS, domestic violence, or totalitarian regimes. Marchi said she’s interviewed African-Americans, Jews, Asian-Americans, and people of other ethnicities who’ve attended Day of the Dead events and have adopted the tradition as their own.

Some of them, she said, express a debt of gratitude to the Chicano artists who fostered the tradition here. "It was a gift that they gave to the larger U.S. society in terms of offering a forum that people could adopt and identify with as a way to remember their loved ones and connect with their past and their histories in a very public way and in a very joyous, positive way."

By most accounts, Los Angeles boasts the largest Day of the Dead festival in the country. It took place last weekend amid the mausoleums and gravestones of Cecil B. DeMille, Marion Davies, and Mel Blanc at Hollywood Forever, one of L.A.’s most historic cemeteries.

Cemetery employee Adela Marquez, born in northern Mexico, and her younger, U.S.-born sister founded the Dia de los Muertos festival a decade ago to share a significant part of their cultural identity that goes back generations. This year, she said, about half the crowd was Latino and the rest represented a mosaic of ethnicities.

The observance is very Latin American, she added, at the same time that it's universal. "We all have skeletons, we all live in skeleton, right. In a way it kind of belongs to all of us. Death belongs to all of us. Death is part of life, it’s a natural next step that nobody wants to take, but it’s there. If other cultures want to borrow our day, you’re welcome."

Marquez said she tries to protect their event from too much commercialization. Scholar Regina Marchi said she’s heard Latinos complain about Day of the Dead happy hours and worse. But she’s not worried. As long as some people seek a deep, spiritual meaning from Day of the Dead, she concluded, it’s hard to imagine that it’ll become the same kind of observance as St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo.