In an annual celebration of cultural and spiritual heritage, tens of thousands of people flocked to Oakland’s Fruitvale district for its annual Dia de los Muertos festival. This year’s family-oriented celebration featured craft vendors, traditional music and over 20 colorful altars created by different Oakland organizations, students and individual residents.
“Our altar was made by students and parents in our arts and crafts after school program,” said Gloria Vargas, from Education for Change Achieve Academy. Their altar honored Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, two Mexican painters chosen by the students.
Oakland resident Tina Ramos created an altar dedicated to Oakland’s Jefferson’s Park to commemorate the Latino community that lived there 60 years ago and to “honor green urban spaces.” The park has personal significance for Ramos as well. Her family first migrated to the Jefferson Park area three generations before hers. To create her altar, Ramos looked at old photographs of the park and the people who once lived and worked around it.
“My grandmother was born on this day, and I think it is important to embrace your culture and the people who meant a lot to you and what they were about,” said Ramos. “Honoring my family members that have passed away with food, art and bright colors helps me move forward… It also helps our community move forward when we can share our cultures.”
Adriana Diaz does not have any close family members who have passed away but she chose to honor her favorite Mexican actors of the 20th century. Her altar featured Pedro Infante, a Mexican idol still famous in Mexico seven generations after his death, Cantinflas, known as the Mexican Charlie Chaplin, and Titan, a comedian who made the style of Mexican-American pachucos famous in Mexico.
“Pedro Infante’s favorite tequila was Alcohol Victoria, which is why I have it next to his photograph,” said Diaz, referring to the belief that the dead return home, visit their love ones and feast on the food offerings provided in the altar. Flowers, candy and music are often left on altars, along with messages written for the deceased.
Altars were not the only ways of commemorating the dead at the event. Danza Xochiquetzal, an Aztec dancing group from Oakland, performed rituals throughout the festival to honor their ancestors. Each of the dancers had skulls painted on half of their faces. The drumming never stopped – dancers jumped up and down, wearing headdresses and elaborate masks decorated with long feathers.
“This is a very special day for us; we honor the dead by using four directions. We turn south to honor children who have passed away, east to honor women who died giving birth, west for men and south to remember our grandparents,” said Federico Landa, a member of Danza Xochiquetzal.
Jake Lerninger, a high school student from Hayward, came to the festival to learn more about Mexican culture and write a report.
“I thought it was going to be like something more intimate, but this is fun, I like how there’s a lot of people,” said Lerninger. “My favorite thing are the Aztec dancers.”
The Day of the Dead is a celebration that is culturally significant to many of the festival’s attendees, including Ramos. Ramos said she is glad to share her culture’s traditions with the larger Oakland community, but is adamant that the message of honoring loved ones who have passed away remains essential.
“As long as that message does not get destroyed I do not mind festivals like these,” she said.