Dia de los Muertos in Los Angeles = Family Fun

Genie Davis November 2, 2011 No Comments

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Little kids love Halloween…so what about Día de los Muertos, a family holiday in Mexico but not so much in the States. Conventionally, this celebration honoring the deceased happens in conjunction to All Saints’ Day on November first. This ancient holiday memorializes friends and family who’ve passed away through the use of colorful art, altars, dance and music.

Dia de los Muertos Altar Los Angeles

One of the wonderful altars honoring the deceased at Dia de Los Muertos

But in Los Angeles this year, the fantastic and imaginative celebration convened on October 22nd at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Considered among the nation’s largest and most traditional festivals, the celebration was lively, filled with music, rows of food booths, and costumed participants and festival goers. Yes, there were private altars honoring the departed, sugar skulls, favorite foods and drinks, and floral displays. But here were also children’s games, Aztec dancers, a parade with Conch-blowing leaders, costumes, an art show, and many costumed participants. This is a celebration worth planning a fall trip to LA, and if you’re local to SoCal, add this to your calendar.

The festival lasts all day from noon to midnight, with timed admittance every four hours to keep the crowds down. We chose the first twelve to four time slot, which we felt would be the most family friendly, and it was an excellent choice. In the evening there is undoubtedly more of a young adults scene, as the at-the-time untouched tequila stands were expecting.

There was face painting to get the kids in the mood – cats, dogs, snakes, princesses with glitter, and yes of course, the traditional Day of the Dead skeleton faces, depending on your child’s taste. Over fifty altars were laid out in and around the cemetery markers, many featuring pictures of the deceased, and favorite items ranging from games to food, jewelry, and clothing. We loved one which was built around a cemetery stone featuring hundreds of flowers from sun flowers to roses. But all of the altars were stunningly imaginative. There was a tribute to artist Keith Herring which  displayed his design work laid out in flowers and candy; a wonderful old car was packed with skeleton passengers; food was laid out for arriving ghost relatives; Isaac Asimov hung out with the first Russian cosmonaut space dog. Paper mache and wood substituted for actual bones. Some altars featured costumed creators using performance art to enhance their displays; some went political with an homage to the fallen soldiers of recent and on-going wars.

An easy to follow map was handed out at the cemetery entrances, and we were sure to see all of the altars spread out across Hollywood Forever and catch several of the musical performances.

The kids were able to score some unique and inexpensive jewelry including pins made from bottle caps with tiny, glitter infused skulls painted inside. There were Chorros, free paper mummy masks and Mexican candy, tamales, tostadas, and horchatas. They were allowed to play marimbas, learn some ritual dance steps, and draw chalk pictures honoring the departed.

The hot sunshine kept a lot of the black-clad participants looking for a shady tree, or seeking a bit of shelter inside the Mausoleum, where experimental modern dancers flung themselves back and forth across the marble floors. The Mausoleum also housed an art exhibit focusing on op-art skeletons, silver sculptures, and traditional Day of the Dead scenes. My kids were curious about the crypts “Are there real bodies inside? Is it haunted?” but neither they nor any of the children we saw enjoying the grassy Fairbanks Meadow were worried about their proximity to the departed.

Dia de los Muertos Costumes Los Angeles

The costumed parade participants provided captivating entertainment for the whole family.

Costumed Aztec dancers formed a parade and then performed on a stage set up on the Meadows; a parade featuring an enormous skeleton marionette riveted the kids and we followed it down the meandering paths of the cemetery. Away from the official celebration, costumed attendees posted for photos on or near grave stones, and we enjoyed just walking through looking at the markers of the famous and those of quiet strangers.

Just as the celebration is supposed to encourage, everyone was celebrating – life, the lives of those long past, and of course spinning prize wheels to get those paper mummy masks.

Several hours should do it for small children, and again, there was nothing frightening here during the day light hours, rather a magical, mystical feeling prevailed, and one that I know my kids will be talking about for years to come – and one which I plan to show my grandchildren one day. It’s all about tradition, after all, and attending this warm, exciting festival is one I plan to uphold.

After spending the afternoon, we retreated for an early dinner at LA’s venerable El Coyote ten minutes away in West Hollywood. Inside: a display of Dia de Los Muertos miniatures, and Halloween decorations hanging from the ceiling and walls. The decorations and the delicious, inexpensive green corn tamales were the perfect ending to an exuberant day honoring life – and death. The last question of the day “Can we go back next October?”

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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