Thousands of people gathered at El Pueblo Historical Monument near Olvera Street to celebrate Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, an enduring Mexican tradition also found in parts of Central America that includes honoring the dead with sugar skulls, papier-mach skeletons dressed in whimsical costumes and decorated ofrendas, or altars built in homes or cemeteries.
The altars are made so that families can share stories about their loved ones, of sons and daughters who died too soon, a mother or father who worked hard and sacrificed for their children, abuelos that were talented artists, or a tia or tio who lived life to the fullest.
"We do this to remember the dead but also to laugh in the face of death," said Mario Zapien Bustos, a 56-year-old Los Angeles man who built one of the many altars featured around El Pueblo Historical Monument.
His ofrenda included photographs of his mother, Francisca Bustos, who died in 1988, and his father Filogonio Zapien, who passed away in 1963. The altar included candles, corn, handmade linens and other items once enjoyed by his parents as well as gold marigold flowers.
"My parents were very loving," he said. "They were farmers in Tierra
Caliente, Michoacan. They didn't graduate from school, but they were very educated in the ways of the land, of farming."
Dia de los Muertos is an indigenous tradition that dates back thousands of years, Zapien Bustos said. After the conquest of Mexico, Europeans aligned the celebration to coincide with the religious observance of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, Nov. 1 and 2, respectively.
But the real tradition stems from a belief that the souls of the dead return each year to visit and be entertained by their relatives.
The annual event near Olvera Street is particularly symbolic, said Daniel Alvarez, a teacher at Academia Semillas del Pueblo charter school in El Sereno. With half his face painted like a skeleton and rattling shells on his ankles, Alvarez planned to lead children into a traditional Dia de los Muertos dance across from Olvera Street at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes.
"Many of our ancestors are buried right here, in this area," he said, pointing to the nearby Church of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, where hundreds of people gathered for Sunday mass and to celebrate the feast day of St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.
Dia de los Muertos, said
Alvarez, "has become an interesting mixture of Catholicism and ancient beliefs."
Leticia Galvan brought her 8-year-old daughter Lesly Galvan, to the festivities, where the little girl decorated a skull mask.
"I love to paint," Lesly Galvan said as she decorated her skull with blue eyes and green squiggles.
"I like this day because it helps us remember those who have died and the time we spent together," Leticia Galvan said.
"It's also a time to teach our children our traditions," she said.
Day of the Dead festivities such as face painting for children, mariachi bands, ballet folklorico, and candlelight Novenario processions are planned at El Pueblo Historical Monument, 125 Paseo de la Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, through Nov. 4. For information, call 213-625-7074.
A Dia de los Muertos festival also will be held in Canoga Park from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. on Nov. 4 on Sherman Way, between Canoga and Vassare avenues.
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