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Day of the Dead, or also known as Día de Los Muertos, is a time for family and friends to remember and reunite with their late loved ones.
The two-day celebration is not a somber holiday. Instead, it celebrates and honors the dead with festivities filled with color, music and food. Widely observed in Mexico, the holiday has since expanded into Latin America and the United States, including Los Angeles, where the Hollywood Forever Cemetery holds its annual Día y Noche de los Muertos celebrations.
It's also where Carlos Eric Lopez, the Mexican-American fine art and celebrity photographer, hosted his third annual Día de Muertos celebration on Nov. 1.
Lopez began the celebration at his home to educate his non-Latino friends about the history of the Mexican holiday. It has since grown to be an event also dedicated to his 91-year-old grandmother, abuelita Lola Joann V. Cisneros, or “Lita” as he calls her, who received the inaugural Abuelita Award.
Day of the Dead means many things to many people, as Deisy Marquez, Día y Noche de los Muertos event founder, also tells TODAY.com about the cemetery's annual celebration.
“It’s a celebration about honoring and keeping alive the memory of your loved ones and believing that one day you’ll be together. (It is believed) on that one day, even though you’re alive, that realm opens up and you’re together on the Day of the Dead,” Marquez says. “The celebration, and the event itself, it’s very deep and meaningful for a lot of people and everybody has a different idea (of how to celebrate).”
Whether it's gathering at home or the cemetery, building ofrendas (or altars) with photos of the beloved deceased, marigolds, dressing up and sharing your loved ones favorite food, there are many ways to celebrate Day of the Dead.
When is Day of the Dead 2023
Day of the Dead takes place annually on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. It can also be celebrated on different days depending on the region and customs.
For example, some people begin celebrating it on Oct. 31, known as All Hallows Eve, followed by Nov. 1 as All Saints Day, until Nov. 2, which is Day of the Dead.
The history of Day of the Dead
The tradition of Day of the Dead originated in Mexico, with the celebrations combining Aztec rituals with Catholicism brought to the region by Spanish conquistadors, per National Geographic. It then became a mix of the Aztec festival in honor of goddess Mictecacihuatl, the “lady of the dead” who watches over the bones of the dead, per Dayofthedead.holiday, and the religion’s influence. The Aztecs would help the deceased on their journey to the afterlife, offering useful objects to guide them and placing them on their burial sites. This would later be known as ofrendas, or offerings, that are placed on the altars or shrines dedicated to their dearly departed.
In some places, it begins on Oct. 31, Halloween, and concludes on Nov. 2, also known as All Souls' Day.
In some regions, it is believed, per the History Channel, that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on Halloween and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults can do the same on Nov. 2. However, there are contradicting stories of how the spirits of the children come on Nov. 1, which showcases how different regions celebrate the holiday differently.
To prepare for the spirits' arrival, people will make altars that include photos of the deceased, sugar skulls, which represent death and rebirth, as well as the deceased's favorite foods and belongings.
Also included is the flor de Cempasuchil, known as marigold, an orange flower that grows around Mexico in the fall. It is included in the ofrendas not only because they are seen everywhere during that time, but because it is a seasonal flower with a strong smell. According to Dayofthedead.holiday and Mexican folklore, the marigold's smell is believed to attract spirits.
How Day of the Dead is celebrated today
It's an all-welcoming event in Los Angeles
In Mexico, states and regions celebrate it differently.
At Lopez’s Día de Muertos event, it incorporated traditional elements of the holiday, along with his new traditions he creates and establishes as he continues to host.
This year, Gael García Bernal was honored with the inaugural Premio Vida y Legado (life and legacy award) for being “a true cinematic icon whose brilliant work as both a producer and actor has brought Latino stories to life and given them a space in mainstream culture,” Lopez says.
Jessica Alba presented Bernal with the award and during his speech the "Cassandro" star said, “I thought of a moment like this for a long time. A place and a ceremony that incorporates my culture, my life, the people I belong to, and our ancestors. Our collective ancestors."
The evening also included a performance by Mexican-American singer Ángela Aguilar and a dining experience curated by Enrique Olvera, the Mexican chef behind Mexico City’s Pujol.
For Lopez, his goal is to celebrate not only his ancestors, but his guests' late loved ones. Before the party, he asked people to submit photos of those they have lost so they could be displayed on the event's ofrenda.
Lopez also wanted to showcase wonderful Latino talent, artists and more, who took part in the beautiful event.
At Hollywood Forever Cemetery, they make it a priority to showcase the different ways the holiday is celebrated in Mexico by holding a unique theme each year.
For the past 24 years, Hollywood Forever president Tyler Cassity and Marquez, along with their team, visit a specific state in Mexico and learn about the community's Day of the Dead customs and rituals.
For their Oct. 28 event, the theme was “Máscaras de México — Vida y Muerte en La Máscara,” which explored the significance of masks in Mexican and Latin American culture during Day of the Dead. Additionally, the artist of the year is Rafael Coronel.
“The significance of the mask is that it’s a transformative part of a ritual. As you are dying, moving on to the next life, you’re putting on a mask so that you can still see yourself as you were,” Gabriel Avila, director of dance and theme at Hollywood Forever, tells TODAY.com. “It’s also an idealized version of who you want to continue to be. And even though you’ve transpired to another realm, whatever the beauty in the mask is, it still represents who you are and it carries that idea of the soul continuing to live forever.”
The event is near and dear to many. It's also a big family celebration with costume and altar contests, live music and food vendors celebrating Mexican culture at the cemetery.
Cassity notes that the celebration is not just for people of Mexican heritage, but for all Angelenos and those who want to pay tribute to their loved ones. Marquez also shares that it's a way for immigrants and people who can't go back to Mexico or their native land to honor their culture, family and friends.
“We have people from all around the world that know about it,” Marquez says. “We try to give some insight into Mexican culture but at the same time it is embraced by so many different countries."
A special ritual at home or at the cemetery
Over the years, Day of the Dead has evolved to large town celebrations to intimate at-home altars. Many people will decorate their lost one's burial site and hold a picnic while others will attend special Catholic masses and have a mariachi.
Author Annette Chavez Macias tells TODAY.com that she didn't celebrate Día de los Muertos growing up, but recently started setting up an ofrenda at her home and a mini one at her office.
“My dad is from Mexico and my mom is second-generation Mexican American,” she shares. “Several years ago, I started hearing about it and seeing more of the celebrations on social media and online. By then I had lost some relatives and the symbolism of remembering our loved ones during this time really affected me.”
For Macias, she “saw it as a beautiful way to honor their memory” and a way to educate herself on the tradition. As more of her family members join in, they begin setting up their ofrendas in mid-October, adding more until it's completed by Oct. 28. They also decorate her dad and grandparents' graves and try to attend Day of the Dead events in her area.
For Rene Flores Juarez, 68, who hails from Atlixco, Mexico, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, Day of the Dead is a multi-day celebration starting Oct. 28. As he tells TODAY.com in Spanish, on the first day they place a white candle, white flower and a glass of water on the altar for the souls who do not have any family.
As the days continue and they are “esperando a nuestros muertitos" (waiting for our deceased), another candle is lit, a glass of water is placed, as well as white bread, fruit and marigolds, among other tokens. By Nov. 1, which he calls All Saints' Day, "vienen todos los muertitos, fecha en la que llegan los angelitos que son las almas que fallecieron siendo niños."
On that day, you put all the food on the altar, Flores Juarez says, because Nov. 2 is when the adult souls return and more personal belongings are placed on the altar. By Nov. 3, they begin to say goodbye to their dearly departed. "That's why the fruit spoils and it doesn't taste the same... It means they have eaten it and have taken it with them," he says in Spanish.
Additionally, Los Angeles' native Brandie Carlos tells TODAY.com that growing up in East Los Angeles, she lived two blocks from an art center, Self Help Graphics, where the nuns started celebrating the holiday. Her family, who is from Sahuayo, Michoacan, Mexico, began making their own altars at home after being inspired by the local celebration.
“Since I was little, I remember putting together the altar with photos of our loved ones and their favorite foods and drinks like rice and beans, birrote (bread), Mexican candy and liquor,” Carlos recalls. “We always went to downtown Los Angeles to the flower market to buy fresh marigolds for the altar. We would also make it a point to eat their favorite meals during this time.”
For Carlos, because the tradition has become a special part of her family, they have the altar up year-round.
“But we do decorate it more starting mid-to-late-October. We had a death in the family in July, our matriarch, my Nina Marina, and I know it’s going to be extra emotional because she was the one who taught us to create the altar,” she says. “And now she’ll be on it for the first time.”
Bri Luna, founder of The Hoodwitch and author of “Blood Sex Magic,” says the holiday has spiritual and cultural significance for her.
“Dia de los Muertos is a way for me to remember and honor my ancestors and keep their memories alive It’s a celebration of life and it’s so colorful and happy,” she says. Each year, she builds ofrendas, or altars, to her departed loved ones, leaving out their favorite food, as well as flowers and candles.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com