By LaTara Holloway
Sunday afternoon my friends and I trudged through the crowd at the annual Dia de los Muertos event held at Old Mission San Luis Rey De Francia Church.
The event has been going on since 10 a.m., but people are steadily filing into the area well into the afternoon when we arrive. I’ve always heard about Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, from TV shows and in cultural lessons in Spanish class, but this is my first time actually attending the celebration.
The Day of the Dead is a holiday that is rooted in Mexico and currently celebrated in South and Latin America. Because of the growing numbers of Latinos in the US, the holiday is becoming an annual tradition in many cities across the country. Today, there are hundreds of people who are here to enjoy great food, music, culture and to honor their late loved ones. We pass into Old Mission’s inner garden as we enter and see people around the edges admiring and adorning the altars. These altars are not set up to worship a religious figure, but are built in honor of the dead. They are made by the family and friends of the deceased and adorned with the favorite food, toys, memorabilia and pictures of the deceased. It’s believed that the souls come back to roam the Earth to spend time with family and friends. Marigolds cover many of the altars; it is believed that the flowers lead the dead back to the realm of the living.
Children and adults of all ages are dressed in costumes, elaborate dresses and face paints for the festival. But to get this day confused by comparing it to Halloween is a mistake. These costumes are not meant to frighten or disguise yourself as your favorite super hero. Instead, the traditional dresses and suits worn today are all to honor those who have passed away. Some people wrongly believe that the celebrations for the dead may involve some type of paganism or rooted in something unholy. Unlike Halloween, the Day of the Dead is recognized by the Catholic church.
“In the Catholic church, Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 are two very important dates where we remember the saints … and also those who died,” Father David Gaa of the Old Mission said in reference to All Saints Day and All Souls Day respectively. Traditionally, the first is set aside to honor lost children, while the second honors the lives of adults. Gaa also mentions that there are religious services in the cemetery on the actual holiday and special masses for everybody who has died. The church is currently open for those who wish to pray. The cemetery is also open for the public with guests coming to admire and decorate the graves here.
Just outside the cemetery is a street filled with chalk tiles on both ends with mini chalk memorials. Names, messages of endearment, and even a detailed chalk portrait fill the tiles. Passersby admire the work, and some take up a piece of chalk themselves to remember a loved one. One of my friends makes a tile message for his father. It’s a somber moment, and I’m thankful I don’t have any names I want to fill in. But the mood is soon broken as a golf cart drives across the chalk memorials carrying a security guard and a friar, smearing the chalk memorials in the process.
A hum of disapproval and judging looks shoot towards the golf cart, despite the apologies from the security guard. We decide to leave early. We pass by the altars as we leave the Old Mission. Even though today is set up to remember those we’ve lost, this serves as a little reminder to appreciate the ones who are with me now.
LaTara Holloway is an AUM student and long-time contributor to the AUMnibus. She is completing her degree in Communication and Theatre from Oceanside, California, where she now lives with her husband and son.