Dia de los Muertos, a day of respect, a day for goodbyes

Modesta Gandara entered the inaugural Dia de los Muertos celebration at Woodlawn cemetery with a heavy heart and a mission.Gandara, on the verge of hysterics, frantically searched for her daughter’s grave as she struggled to keep composure. Ramona Luisa Gandara Mcgrath died in 2009 of breast cancer. The distressed 85 year old searched for her daughter’s unmarked grave, and would not rest until she found her daughter’s final resting place. Woodlawn cemetery is owned and operated by the city of Santa Monica, and has gravesites that were present while the land was still Mexico. Many Santa Monica residents such as Daniel Alonzo honor the chance to have their final resting place in the city. “When you’re born and raised in this city, it means a lot to be buried here,” said Alonzo. “To some people it doesn’t matter where they’re at, but to me it’s important.” Dancers from the Danza Azteca Ketzalitzli dance group, equipped in full Aztec garb and body paint, performed in spellbinding synchronization. “We respect all of this, we respect all these people,” said Hilda Contreras, leader of the Ketzalitzli. Contreras was overcome with an otherworldly energy during the performance that was irresistible to watch. “When I dance, I think of all my people; we pray for our people that died,” said Contreras. The dance was fitting for a day where the living pay respect to lost loved ones as they try to make sense of their lives. “For me it’s surreal,” said Tony Vazquez as he mourned the loss of his brother-in-law, Jesse Gerena , who died of leukemia. “I lost a father and a brother to cancer,” said Vazquez, behind dark sunglasses. “Jesse worked with kids. He had patience and always had a smile on,” he said, pointing to a picture of his deceased friend. Ron Ando attended the event with his wife and reminisced about tales to Woodlawn in his youth as he lightheartedly toured the cemetery. “I used to come here with my mom. She was vigilant about flowers,” said Ando. “Pretty much my whole family is here,” he said. “My parents have a spot in the mausoleum, but they’re not there yet,” he joked. Allison Ostrovsky, Cultural Affairs Supervisor for the city of Santa Monica, paid respect to her grandparents and great-grandparents. “We want to make people aware of the park,” said Ostrovsky. “Woodlawn is not known for events, but we wanted to add something respectful and tasteful,” she said. The Dia de los Muertos celebration at Woodlawn cemetery was educational, thoughtful, and heartfelt. The city succeeded at introducing an exciting new event with appeal for all residents. “We hope to do this annually. This is the first time doing Dia de los Muertos and we weren’t sure what to expect,” said Ostrovsky. “We love to see all these families and diversity. We achieved what we we’re looking for,” she said. “It was intimate.” Gandara, overcome with emotion when finally finding Mcgrath’s unmarked grave, summoned the last of her strength to pay her respects, and left flowers to commemorate the gravesite. “I visit whenever I can,” said Gandara. “I thought I would go first.”