Photo Story: Celebrating Día de los Muertos in California

Ali Caudle, Reporter

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Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that honors the dead, and happens every year on Nov. 2. The holiday has its roots in Mesoamerican tradition, and though it is a Mexican holiday, it is also celebrated in the USA and throughout Latin America.

One major aspect of the holiday is the tradition of building an ofrenda, an altar, to remember your deceased family and friends. Customarily, ofrendas are filled with pictures of the dead, candles, marigolds (the flower of the dead), and the items they loved in life, including their favorite food and drinks.

This year, I had the opportunity to visit the Festival of Altars, a Día de los Muertos celebration in San Francisco, California. It is put on every year by the Marigold Project, an organization that, according to their website, “serves the community by creating healing spaces connecting us to our ancestors… to honor the circle of life and death.” The Marigold Project also provides cultural education, art and writing therapy workshops.

The Festival of Altars lasted from 4:00-11:00 pm, and took place at Potrero Del Sol Park on the corner of 25th Street and San Bruno Avenue in the Mission District. It was a free event open to the public, and everyone was invited to share in the culture.

There were five main altars built by the Marigold Project, each one representing a different theme: air, fire, water, earth, and self-love. Additionally, there were hundreds of smaller altars around the park which were set up by members of the community.

Many attendees wore traditional Mexican outfits, or dressed as La Catrina. La Catrina is the figure that represents death in Mexican culture, and she is a classic Día de los Muertos symbol. It was also common to see people with their faces painted as skeletons, or wearing flowers in their hair.

Above, click through the slideshow to view a collection of photos from the event.

Potrero del Sol Park in San Francisco was filled with thousands of people celebrating Día de los Muertos.

Members of the community built their own altars to remember their loved ones.

Everywhere you looked, there were people and colors and sounds and flowers.

Skeletons are one of the most common motifs of Día de los Muertos.

According to Mexican tradition, La Catrina is the figure who represents death. She is a tall skeletal figure usually depicted wearing long dresses, large hats, and carrying flowers. There were many photos, statues, and drawings of La Catrina at the Festival of Altars, as well as many attendees dressed as her.

Marigolds, also known as cempasúchil, are orange flowers native to Southern Mexico. They are known as the flower of the dead (“flor de muertos” in Spanish) and are one of the most iconic symbols of Día de los Muertos. This woman is constructing her altar by weaving the marigolds into the fencing.

One family set up a stand with markers and paper, and encouraged people to write notes to their deceased loved ones. These notes were then strung and displayed along a fence. One woman, Olivia Solorzano, tells me she wrote a note for her son, Joseph, who died six years ago.

Festival attendees read the messages pinned to the fences around the park.

A sign in front of this altar reads “Se merecen estar aqui”. In English, that means “They deserve to be here”. This community altar was dedicated to the children who have died in detention centers along the US-Mexico border.

Attendees admire the altar dedicated to the immigrant children in the USA’s custody at the border.

There were five community altars built by the organizers of the festival. This one represents the earth.

There were five community altars built by the organizers of the festival. This one represents the element of fire.

Attendees were eager to photograph everything: the altars, the people, the costumes.

Attendees spend hours walking around and admiring the various altars.

More than anything, Día de los Muertos is about family. This is one of the reasons the Festival of Altars is held at a park, so that children can come and play and celebrate.

The altars are filled with images of the dead, as well as flowers, candles, fruits, and the items they loved in life.

While all the altars share similar characteristics, each one is unique.

As the sun set over the crowd, everyone gathered in an oval shape to say a prayer to welcome their loved ones back to Earth.