Life abounds on Dia de los Muertos

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Dia de los Muertos unites two cultures

Dia de los Muertos is not about death, but celebrating life.

Two children with their faces painted like catrinas dance in front of the main stage at the Dia de los Muertos celebration at the La Vista Memorial Park.

One day a year the Aztec worlds of the living and dead intersect, and the spirits of the dearly departed walk with their families once again. Spirits journey back to sample their favorite foods, smell sacred cempazuchitl flowers (marigolds) and relish the beauty of altars created in their honor.

La Vista Memorial Park in National City – the South County’s oldest cemetery – put on a spectacular event that celebrated the ancestors with beautiful art, seductive altars and spirited music.

La Vista began hosting a Dia de los Muertos event in 2008 as a way for manager Luisa McCarthy to remember her late father.

“My dad is buried in Tecate, Baja California,” she said. “I wanted to honor him here since I can’t have him here with me.”

McCarthy said she was able to garner enough support from the community to make the event come to life.

“They wanted to help because they could see that it was not for profit, but to keep the culture alive,” she said.

Altars dedicated to lost loved ones are being blessed by an Aztec shaman.

Food vendors sold tacos and sugary skull calaveras while artisans offered jewelry, paintings and sculptures of calacas and catrinas.

Calacas are painted skulls and figures of skeletons. Catrinas are specifically female skeletons that often wear fancy clothes and wide-brimmed hats.

“Tree of Life,” a massive painted wooden sculpture by artist Antonio Escalante, served as a grand centerpiece for the cemetery celebration. It depicted a golden tree decorated with carvings of painted skulls, colorful marigolds, human hearts and white doves. Scattered around the base of the sculpture were candles, real marigolds, painted skulls and offerings of fruit and sweet bread.

Antonio Escalante’s sculpture “Tree of Life” served as a centerpiece to the Day of the Dead celebrations at La Vista.

Marigolds are the Aztec flower of Dia de los Muertos and thousands decorated the cemetery to help guide the spirits to their ofrendas, or altars, with their bright color and alluring aroma.

Beautiful artwork was everywhere, the scent of food and flowers were in the air, and the sound of mariachi music was a clarion of celebration.

Food vendors like El Cacho Fish Taco Stand and Limon Mexican Food offered a broad range of quality food choices for the living guests of the event, and although the dead received mostly fruit and candy, few complained.

Though the event takes place in a graveyard, the atmosphere was festive enough to counteract whatever fears children could have. Face painting stations operated by professional makeup artists transformed people into stunning catrinas. There were also coloring stations where kids could entertain themselves by creating their own painted skulls.

Altars decorated with picture frames of loved ones who passed away were visible throughout La Vista. They were lavishly decorated with flowers and personal possessions that gave meaning to those the altars honor, as well as offerings of food for the dead to enjoy. Each altar was unique and held different meanings for families as they conjured the spirits of the saints by presenting their favorite earthly temptations.

Dia de los Muertos has spread beyond those who originally brought it from Mexico. Now that the holiday is more accessible, people are benefitting from the healthy and constructive ways it allows people to deal with their grief.

An attendee honors the dead with incense at a shrine decorated with photographs, marigolds and plenty of skeletons.

Angela and Zachary Riggs, winners of the altar competition, first began taking part the year their 26-day-old child passed away from sudden infant death syndrome. Angela Riggs said she felt competing has been therapeutic for her and her husband.

“It’s brought us so much healing and it allows us to do something for our son with our hands that we weren’t able to do before he passed on,” she said.

Zachary Riggs said he felt that celebrating the Day of the Dead has helped them.

“I think it’s a better way of looking at death,” he said. “We shouldn’t be scared of honoring those that have passed on. We shouldn’t stop talking about them, we should honor what they have done to get us to where we are.”

Beautifully dressed catrinas, some accompanied by male catrins, participated in a costume contest with their own personalized costumes. Skull-faced catrinas somberly marched onto the stage, parading their enormous wide-brimmed hats and whimsical gowns and suits accessorized with lace, sequins, flowers and feathers.

The winner of the catrina costume contest being presented her trophy.

Southwestern College’s Mariachi Garibaldi helped make Las Vista’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration a musical event. Accompanied by the Ballet Folklorico Jalisciense, the two talented groups blew the crowd away with traditional Mexican music and dance helping make the celebration of life authentic.

Jeff Nevin, director of Mariachi Garibaldi, and Mary Lopez, director and choreographer of Ballet Folklorico Jalisciense, both excelled in preparing their groups for this event. Together they made sure that the attendees, both living and dead, were thoroughly entertained.

Though Dia de los Muertos was not widely celebrated in the past, it is becoming more popular in the United States with each passing year. Despite the political climate, the Day of the Dead is a holiday that is thriving.

Nine years ago McCarthy first organized an event that is now a significant part of the community. It caters to all people, addressing the serious aspect of the holiday in which the lives of those who are gone are celebrated and by entertaining the living with contests, music and dance.

National City Mayor Ron Morrison has attended every event since the start.

“Every year it just keeps growing and growing,” he said. “It’s a great family event that allows people to experience this. There are a whole lot of traditions, some of them that people are familiar with some of them that people are not familiar with. That’s what is phenomenal about this.”

A catrina wearing her signature wide brimmed hat.

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