The Day of the Dead is actually a celebration of life

By Vanessa Zamorano

Photo Courtesy Vanessa Zamorano/The Vista.

Photo Courtesy Vanessa Zamorano/The Vista.

This year marked the 14th annual Sherman Heights Day of the Dead Celebration. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of the most important traditions celebrated in Mexico and throughout Latin America. This holiday is a celebration in honor of the memory of loved ones who have passed away. It is traditionally not seen as a mourning holiday because it is a celebration of the continuity of life. It is believed that during this time the spirits of departed loved ones come back to visit and thus it is said that the path back to the living world must not be made slippery by tears.

The Sherman Heights Community Center’s annual celebration is a two-day event that takes place in Sherman Heights, just east of Downtown San Diego. The main attraction of the celebration was the Day of the Dead altars on display. Day of the Dead altars vary in design but are typically made of wood and consist of shelves and ledges in an arch form that are decorated with colorful paper and cloth. Candles line the inside of the shelves along with the cempasuchil flower, an orange marigold. Ancient Aztecs used this flower in celebration to commemorate the dead. The orange hues of the flower imitate the tones of the earth to signal souls to the altars.

A traditional food placed on the altars is the Day of the Dead bread. This bread is made with flour, butter, sugar, eggs, orange peel, anise and yeast. It is adorned with strips of dough simulating bones and at the top there is a small round piece of dough that symbolizes teardrops. Altars also contain a combination of pagan and religious detail as well as photos of the deceased. Samples of their favorite food, drink, clothing and hobbies are also placed in commemoration.

In accordance with Mexican tradition a procession gathered in a cemetery to view their loved ones’ gravesites. As part of the Sherman Heights celebration a procession took place in honor of the fallen and local activists, specifically community leader Aztleca. The procession traveled from the community center to Chicano Park. During the procession, people held signs with photos and names of activists being honored. There were hundreds of people present. Aztec dancers performed traditional dances during stops along the way. The procession stopped at a home along the way where a brightly lit and decorated altar was displayed on the front porch. The home belongs to a family that has participated in the celebration for years. They provided participants with the traditional Mexican drink, “canela,” and cookies. The Aztec dancers performed in front of the home while the altar was blessed. Afterward, the procession continued to Chicano Park where several other altars were placed.

Newcomers and previous attendees alike gathered to celebrate in this year’s Sherman Heights procession. A woman marching in the procession described how she stumbled upon the celebration in Sherman Heights years ago by happenstance. “I was driving home one day from work and stumbled upon the procession. I was intrigued and followed it to Chicano park. I had never heard of this celebration but after seeing the festivities and doing my own research, it has become a tradition for me. I lost my husband seven years ago, so this really hit home for me. I bring my daughter and we participate every year both here and with our own altar at home,” she said.

Chicano park is an important symbol to the Hispanic community in San Diego for community organizations fighting to save a culture and a neighborhood. Years ago, the land where the park is built today was going to be the location of junkyards that would have threatened local businesses and homes. Through community activism and support, Chicano Park exists today as an appropriate pitstop for the funeral procession. The altars constructed in Chicano Park were blessed upon arrival of the Day of the Dead group. Marigolds were placed on the steps of the gazebo where several altars were placed next to one another, forming a path to each altar. Following the blessing of the altars, there was a performance of Aztec dancing and a reception at The Spot Barrio Logan, an art gallery near Chicano Park.

The annual Sherman Heights Day of the Dead celebration is an extremely welcoming event–all are invited to participate. It is a celebration of the community through the remembrance of those that have passed away. Day of the Dead is a tradition with a universal purpose that unites all people to celebrate life in spite of death.