Driving into the Dia de Los Muertos display on Sacramento’s Front Street feels a little like entering a Mexican town square. Vibrant paper garlands are strung above a collection of kitchen tables, each set with a colorful tablecloth and a set of painted wooden chairs. Cempasuchil, or marigold flowers, are all over the property.
The floral displays, along with burning incense and a mariachi band, are meant to attract the spirits of those who’ve died to revisit their living family members. Typically Mexican-Americans spend the day preparing ofrendas, or altars, for a loved one who’s passed— complete with that person’s photo, their favorite foods and any coveted objects.
Marie Acosta, executive director of the Latino Center of Art and Culture that’s sponsoring the drive-through event, says water is also key.
“Because our departed loved ones must refresh themselves before they go back,” she said. “We don’t want them to have a trip where they’re dehydrated. That would be very bad.”
The mood at the site is jovial, despite the fact that many in Sacramento’s Mexican community have experienced the loss of a loved one during the pandemic. According to the latest state data, Latinos comprise 48% of California’s COVID-19 deaths, despite making up only 40% of the population. Nearly one in three Latinos know someone who’s died from the virus, compared to one in five of all Californians, according to the California Health Care Foundation.
That fact will color this year’s festivities, but Acosta says it won’t be the focus. She lost her own brother to the virus this fall and is building an altar for him.
“It’s not a mournful or grieving event in Mexico,” she said. “It really is celebrating a person’s life. However, this year the underlying tone will be of the devastation Covid-19 has caused.”
Making Adjustments, Continuing to Grieve
The Latino Center of Art and Culture site opens Oct. 29 and runs through Nov. 1, though the holiday itself technically spans the first two days of November.
Acosta and her team have replicated a Mexican cemetery, containing a temporary chapel with a working church bell and dirt mounds decorated by community members in honor of their ancestors.
Typically, the center would host a community altar in midtown where anyone could come and place objects to honor loved ones. Because of social distancing guidelines, they’ve asked people to send in written tributes, to be posted along the drive-through route.
Twenty families have been invited to build full ofrendas at this year’s installation. Jenny Martinez spent the early part of this month thinking about how to create one for her mother, who died in 2014.
“It’s really important to us that we get together, my brother and my dad and I,” she said. “That’s what pretty much gets us to do it every year.”
They had planned to put out photographs of their mother, a special Day of the Dead bread called pan de muertos and her favorite beer. In the end they were unable to participate in the drive-through event this week due to a family emergency.
For some groups, the risk of COVID-19 at a large event outweighs the need to observe the holiday. Claudio Cisneros runs Dia De Los Muertos Oak Park, which canceled its annual street festival. Instead, they’re hosting a digital altar and educating people on how to honor loved ones from home.
“This pandemic has really disrupted the way this is practiced,” he said. “We are not putting on an event. We can’t.”
Cisneros says he’s creating an altar at home and not getting together with his parents, who he has not seen since the pandemic started.
He hasn’t lost anyone to the virus, but understands the upcoming holiday will be especially painful for some.
“There are individuals that are certainly hurting and grieving,” he said. “And ironically, at the same time, their deaths are giving Dia de Los Muertos as a tradition even more meaning. So it's an interesting play-out of life and death.”
Cisneros expects some families who’ve lost someone to COVID-19 will skip Dia de Los Muertos this year.
“Generally what I’ve seen is individuals wait and they participate in the next year, as they’re still grieving at the moment.”
Not far from the Front Street drive-through installation, the Sacramento nonprofit Sol Collective and the Sacramento History Museum have erected a modified version of their usual Dia de Los Muertos display.
Estella Sanchez, director of Sol Collective, says the organizations were determined to find a safe way to observe the holiday. They’ve created a handful of outdoor altars in Old Sacramento for people to walk past, complete with reading materials to educate people about the history of Day of the Dead.
“We know it’s incredibly important to use our traditions and rituals to help us through the grieving and healing process,” Sanchez said. “We are experiencing a lot of grief and we wanted to make sure we’re highlighting events across the state.”
She says there’s been a recent rise in the popularity of Dia de Los Muertos among Mexican-Americans, who have adopted and transformed the holiday. They’ve passed the custom onto younger generations without necessarily explaining all of the history, Sanchez said. Traditionally it involves in-home altars and trips to the cemetery to decorate a loved one’s gravesite.
“[In] a lot of younger generations, sometimes that tradition has been lost,” she said.
To the larger public, Dia de los Muertos is a time for big street festivals, featuring food vendors, live music, Mexican dances and crafts such as painted sugar skulls. These large-scale events are prohibited by public health orders in most California counties.
Aida Perez, installation coordinator for the Latino Center of Art and Culture, said it’s difficult to not celebrate as a community, but it’s important to give people some way to observe the holiday in light of the virus.
“We want to make sure we pay tribute to those souls that have been lost throughout the year, through this sickness,”she said. “This is the way we’re going to know a way to comfort, and heal, and grieve through the process, too.”
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