Los muertos viven: Day of the Dead at Woodlawn Cemetery

Drum beats bounce off the walls of the Santa Monica College parking structure and the Foster’s Freeze across from it, and move directly through the ground while the sound of a conch shell fills the air.

Maracas and beads around danzantes’ feet compliment the sound, and danzantes act out how warriors cross over into the spirit world. Children focus on the movements of the danzantes performing before them, understanding their movements as a form of prayer.

So goes the opening ceremony of the celebration of Dia de los Muertos at Woodlawn Cemetery on a Saturday morning, still windy and cloudy from the night’s long-awaited rains.

The Santa Monica Community and Cultural Services Department, the Santa Monica Public Library, Woodlawn Cemetery, and artist Paulina Sahagun worked together to produce the celebration of those who have passed, as well as educate the living about such traditions.

A rough estimate of 400-500 people came to enjoy music and dances from Ketzalitzli, a group which performs ceremonial Aztec danzantes, Quetzalcoatl, which performed music from various regions of Mexico, Los Angeles-based mariachis Los Dorados de Villa, performance artist Nobuko Miyamoto and her organization Great Leap, and New Dawn Children’s Dance Circle.

Attendees could watch artists on the stage, make coronitas of marigolds and papel picado to adorn gravesites or commemorate the life of someone not buried at Woodlawn. A documentary on how the tradition is carried out in Oxaca, "The Feast of the Souls" was also featured at the cemetery, complimented by tamales or Pan de Muerto from Mama’s Hot Tamales and La Monarca Bakery.

People of all backgrounds came to celebrate the traditional Mexican holiday in which the souls of the departed are said to return from Mictlan, or the "place of death", to their families.

Some came just out of appreciation for the culture like SMC student and volunteer, Chanel Moser who admired the beautiful ways in which attendees set up altars before a loved ones’ gravesite.

As the sounds from the stage change from traditional Aztec drums to Quetzalcoatl’s regional selections, and again to Los Dorados’ mariachi, several families carry tables, cloth, and marigolds to the gravesides of the deceased.

For the family of Leticia “Letty” Vazquez, this was the first year the family set-up an altar for her at the traditional ceremonial event. Although it is initially a somber process, Vazquez's family soon begin to share stories remembering her life. Families surround altars adorned in sheets, skulls, marigolds and flower arrangements, baseball and Dodgers gear, small skull-shaped bottles of tequila, and other items either typical of the holiday or loved by the deceased.

The Los Dorados mariachi group later provide a musical offering to Vazquez’s gravesite, intended for the living as well as the dead.

A musical offering also comes to the grave of Jesse Gerena, whose wife Lidia set up a modest altar, placing importance on celebrating the person's life rather than the details that go into it. The afternoon's heavy winds kept her leaning close to the altar, securing the adorned items she built for her diseased husband.

Back at the stage, Nobuko Miyamoto, a performance artist and founder of multicultural performance group Great Leap, performs a circle dance called “FandangObon” to a song that combines English, Spanish, and Japanese.

A performance of “Mottainai” follows, a song about curbing ecologically wasteful habits named after a Japanese saying that means “It’s a shame what you waste.” As Miyamoto puts it, “Mottainai” was a “method of survival” for Japanese immigrants.

Though it may seem unusual to observe Japanese burial rituals apart of a traditionally Mexican holiday, Sahagun explained, “Everyone has some sort of ritual celebration of death.”

Obon, or “Gathering of Joy,” is a Japanese Buddhist ritual where people return home to honor their ancestor, and is similar to the intent of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. No matter a person's place of origin, “We are born, we live, and we die,” said Sahagun.

The event concludes with another traditional ceremonial danza, this time from New Dawn Children’s Dance Circle, where members are motivated to keep the traditions of the Chichimeca of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States alive.

They act out some of the same scenarios as Ketzalitzli, such as crossing over into the spirit world, but they are a new generation of bearers of indigenous culture.

For next year, event organizers plan to take festivities to 14th Street to “celebrate as the living,” and are considering the inclusion of African celebrations of the similar natures.

The importance of the Mexican celebration carries over to future years and future generations, and still holds reverence in Santa Monica's highly diverse culture. “We need to honor our elders that have gone on to another world because it makes us aware of our humanity and the fragility of life,” Sahagun says.

CultureYasha HawkinsComment