At Oakdale Memorial Park things are a little different on Nov. 1 -- All Saints' Day for many Christians.
This place of rest in Glendora, east of Los Angeles, comes alive with the joyful strum and blaring brass of live mariachi music. The color and beauty of Mexican folkloric dance sweeps across the grounds. Sweet and savory aromas rise from a small army of food trucks nearby. And vendors sit at display tables and beneath tents, selling handmade arts and crafts.
Hundreds of people have come to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, the indigenous Mexican festival also known as Day of the Dead.
Rosie Kaiban came with her daughter, Stephanie, and her granddaughter, Lauren.
“We’re here to enjoy all the people and enjoy everything that Dia de Los Muertos stands for,” says Kaiban.
And what it stands for is getting a little harder to tell, in part because the festival’s cultural icons are beginning to appear on everything -- from beer bottles to T-shirts, tennis shoes and dog collars. Even Starbucks features Dia de los Muertos skull cookies in their pastry cases.
But as the scene at Oakdale Memorial Park demonstrates, the day means much more. People are here to commemorate a tradition that dates back thousands of years. The central cultural experience is about family and remembrance.
Los Angeles-based Chicano artist Hector Silva stands next to his work -- a stunning collection of intricate and ornate pencil art sketches, incredible for their precision and depth. Silva has celebrated the day since he was a kid in Jalisco, Mexico.
“It’s significant,” says Silva. “Celebrating our people that are passed on. And just remember them and to keep loving them. I do a lot of Dia de Los Muertos art because I want to keep that tradition alive.”
And the tradition is elaborate. Celebrants paint their faces as skulls to represent the veil between life and death. Altars are adorned with marigolds, sugar skulls and photographs of loved ones.
Gilbert Cadena teaches ethnic and women's studies at Cal Poly Pomona, and hopes the focus of Dia de los Muertos remains on the deep familial and cultural ties that the day represents.
“Building of the altar is a way that we intentionally and mindfully create something beautiful," Cadena says. “It's a way your story and your life will be passed on to your children and family.”
Everything on the altar has meaning. Each sugar skull bears the name of a loved one. The bright and pungent marigolds are said to guide the spirits home. Bright burning candles light the way.
And then there are the personal touches.
“If your mother or father likes tamales, you can bring tamales. If they like to smoke, you bring a pipe. If they like to drink, you can bring a shot of tequila,” explains Cadena. “Something to remember them by.”
Dia de los Muertos is a tradition that embraces life and death -- a hopeful and meaningful common bond we all share. Standing next to her family’s grave, Rosie Kaiban says it best.
“My mother-in-law. My sister-in-law. And, someday, we’ll be buried here, too.”