This Halloween was about more than just candy at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles. Multiple sections of the park were filled with colorful artworks to honor the dead in the Día de los Muertos Altars + Art celebration. Spanning four city blocks, the exhibit aims to integrate and convey stories and traditions of Angeleno life.
The more than 50 pieces of art in this celebration were curated by a partnership between Self Help Graphics and Lore Productions with a theme focusing on the four elements. Each section of Grand Park exhibits a different display: the space between Grand Avenue and Hill Street features altars by Self Help Graphics as well as local organizations like Mujeres de Maiz and Ni Santas Collective. In the park’s Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain, there is a large piece depicting the Lady of the Dead rowing a boat surrounded by flowers and fish skeletons jumping out of the water.
On the Event Lawn between North Broadway and Spring Street, there is a community altar where people can write the names of deceased family members and pets as well as offer items to the dead. A hallmark practice of the festival is leaving offerings to the dead, often in the form of food to keep them nourished in the afterlife. The traditional offering is the calavera, a skull made of white or dyed sugar and decorated with other candy and colorful icing. Bread, apples and water were other popular choices for devotees to leave for their loved ones, but some people took creative license and left SunChips, mustard and packages of beef-flavored ramen.
All elements are present in the offerings placed on the altar, fire from lit candles representing the loving souls of the deceased, water to quench the thirst of the deceased in the afterlife, earth from the food harvested from crops and placed on the altar, and lastly, wind represented by moving objects — often papier-mâché.
While Día de los Muertos is often conflated with Halloween, the two are completely separate holidays. This Mexican holiday directly translates to the “Day of the Dead” and is based in the Aztec belief that life is a temporary transition before death, where people become truly awakened. Many believe that on Oct. 31, the gates of heaven open and the deceased reunite with their loved ones for one day. Typically, Nov. 1 is devoted to the souls of deceased children, angelitos, and Nov. 2 is devoted to remembering the souls of adults.
Orange paper marigolds are a centerpiece in many of the altars at the festival. Also known as cempasuchitls, marigolds are the flowers of the dead, and in Mexico they bloom bright orange and yellow during the months of October and November to help guide spirits back home.
Some of the displays were covered with opaque plastic wrap, to protect them from the uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain earlier in the evening, but the large displays of painted skulls and flowers were unwrapped and illuminated by bright lights to show off their impressive detail and creativity.
Many Angelenos present at the celebration recognize this experience as very important to Mexican, and subsequently, Los Angeles culture.
“It was cool to see Los Angeles participate in an important cultural event, especially one that is such a creative expression of paying respect to the dead,” event-goer Cody Woods said.
The celebration of life and death began on Oct. 28 and will continue through Nov. 5 from 7 to 10 p.m. every evening.
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