For the past several years when the veil thins each November during Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), I have traveled around Mexico, where my own ancestors are from. This year, however, I remained in the States and decided to observe how my home town of Los Angeles was marking this ancient and sacred ritual.
On the Eastside of LA, where I was born and raised, Dia de Muertos has been a part of community life here for decades, thanks to cultural and community arts centre, Self Help Graphics. They would be the first in the U.S. to move Dia de Muertos observances out of the home and into the community at large. Their annual Dia De Muertos events came to fruition during a time of cultural and political unrest in the Chicano community. Civil rights issues surrounding education, farm workers rights, police brutality, and war gave birth to the Chicano Movement, and Eastside LA was an epicenter of El Movimento.
It seems particularly fitting then, that the altars curated by Self Help Graphics and displayed throughout Grand Park in front of City Hall in 2017, carry on the legacy of El Movimento. Many of the issues our community struggles with today are the same ones our grandparents and parents fought to end, and are addressed here in the altars.
The altars are poignant, beautiful, heartbreaking, and infuriating. They tell the story of our ancestors, our community…and one day, when we join he realm of the ancestors, an altar may tell our story, too.
“This altar is lovingly dedicated to honor our Trans Family who have been murdered due to hate. Although they are no longer with us we remember their SPIRIT and know that their memories will always remain in our hearts We also honor those individuals murdered who have been misgendered or not reported at the time of their death.” – Latino Equality Alliance.
“Dedicated to Pachcucos, Zoot Suiters, and Barrio Warriors of yesteryear,” who utilized fashion and their unique style as a form of cultural and political resistance. By artist and historian, J.C. De Luna, The Barrio Dandy.
“This altar is dedicated to Eastside communities who, despite the adverse history of segregation, inequitable planning, and disinvestment from the public and private sectors that have plagued their communities; have grown strong roots of resilience and community activism as evidenced by the Chicano Moratoriaum and Student Walk Outs. Today, youth, residents, businesses and community organizations have come together and formed the Eastside LEADS Coalition, an initiative of the Boyle Heights Building Healthy Communities that is fighting displacement of residents in the Eastside of Los Angeles by working to create a community engagement process that will guide development that benefits existing residents and businesses, not development that displaces them. Our roots are deep and proud and we will preserve our communities through our collective work.” – Eastside LEADS.
“For our little angles, babies and children. Whether we met you in our arms or only in our hearts, you are forever in our minds.” – Celina Jacques.
“We dedicate this altar to our “teachers” – the ancestors who have endured trauma yet gifted our communities with legacies of resistance and resilience. We particularly want to acknowledge the radical women of color and gender non-conforming ancestors that have facilitated the transmission of survivance (survival + resilience), despite experiencing countless intersecting violences. We want to honor their stories, their knowledge, their practices, indeed, their very existences. We recognize that in order to achieve collective liberation, like the hummingbird, we must utilize our ability to fly forward while looking backward, to journey between the past and the future.” – Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at CSULA.
“Despite the fact that LA County is experiencing the lowest crime rates since the 1950s, the County Board of Supervisors is moving ahead with $2.3 BILLION jail expansion plan – including a women’s jail in Mira Loma on land plagued by Valley Fever that’s more than a 150 mile round-trip from most families who will need to visit. Conservative estimates are that repayment on the bonds will escalate costs to $3.5 BILLION, with some financial experts claiming costs will reach $7 BILLION.”
“Once built, the plan will cost hundreds of millions more each year in operating expenses and untold human costs to the people detained, our families and communities. Instead, LA could invest in solutions that communities are pushing – efforts that are cheaper, more humane, more effective in building and maintaining public safety and result in lower recidivism rates than jails – including bail reform, drug treatment, mental health, job creation and community centers; solutions that humanize us and our communities, instead of policies that lock us up and/or fast track us to the cemetery.” – Unknown creator.
Sometimes, all we have to offer our ancestors is our love and gratitude, and a heartfelt reminder that we will never forget to honor them.
This year street vendors have been victims of violent, racist attacks. This altar is a reminder that working is not a crime. Street vendors provide a valuable service to the community and I know many people will agree with me when I say that one of the best moments of the day is when I hear the bell announcing the arrival of the elote man.
“They deserve our respect and appreciation. They are the perfect example of the resilience and creativity our people have in order to lead an honest life. Join us in celebrating those that have passed, but their legacy will live on forever.” – Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, and artist Astrid Anderson.
“This is dedicated to any and all POC/Queer/Gender Fluid folk that for reasons, such as: economical status, religious background, access to health care and public shame have felt that seeking help for mental health’s not an option. Stigmas regarding mental health in our communities make this a large issue that is hardly addressed, leading to suicide. We want you to know you are never alone. Please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you are seeking help.” – Ni Santas, a WOC art collective.
“Dedicated to all of those whose dreams are threatened by our racist and corrupt government and to those that have passed away attempting to make their dreams come true.” – Guadalupe Homeless Project and Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission.
“The Metro Blue Line connects Downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach with a 22 mile above ground track. This track is laid through many working class areas of South LA, and since its opening in 1990 over 120 motorists and pedestrians have been killed.”
“The above ground line has played a huge part in numerous suicides and accidents. On August 29th, 2017 Cesar Rodriguez, 23, was crushed to death at the Wardlow Blue Line Station after a police altercation over fare. His death further spotlights the discrimination and killing of black and brown folks by Police This altar is dedicated to him and all that have lost their lives on those tracks.” – Joan Zeta
A community altar to remember beloved pets.
“Reminiscent of Xochimilco and Mexico City, 9 floral vessels are set adrift on the water. They capture the essence and heart of Janitzio/Patzcuaro’s Day of the Dead celebrations of November 2nd. They also pay homage to the 9 levels that the dead face on their journey to Mictlan, as their soul transitions to the underworld upon their death. For generations waterways have served as a means of transport, transition, and influence between regions and people. Spiritually, they are regarded as a passageway for offerings to the gods and to the underworld, which has played a significant role in death and dying traditions in both Pre-European contact and post-contact eras.”
“Dedicated to loved ones past and the prospect of rebirth, the vessels are adorned with elements associated with the 4 directions (Suns). Among the offerings is the iconic image of the Catrina or “Lady of the Dead.” She rides atop a decorated floating vessel filled with marigolds and elements associated with the 4 directions. The Catrina is both the guiding vessel for the accompanying floral altars and the whimsical focal point of this tribute.” – Marcus Pollitz and LORE Productions.
Sarah Chavez is the executive director of The Order of the Good Death, and co-founder of the feminist death site Death & the Maiden, a project that endeavors to explore the historical and cultural roles self-identified women have played in relation to death. She also has a blog, Nourishing Death, which examines the relationship between food and death in rituals, culture, religion and society. You can follow her on Twitter .