Dia de Los Muertos typically blends sacred religious iconography with decidedly non-religious items and images to reflect the spiritual and the temporal life, as here during a celebration last month at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
Ernesto Vega leans over an enormous bed of yellow-and-orange marigolds fanning out over the cool marble floor of Calvary Cemetery and Mortuary in East Los Angeles, home to fabled movie stars and everyday Angelenos.
“I don’t know where they got this real corn, but it’s so tiny! Oh my God, this is exotic type of corn,” he says, rubbing the dry, rough husks in his fingers.
The corn, the flowers and everything else in this Dia de Los Muertos altar were assembled by a trio of sisters, parishioners from a local Catholic church.
“Their mother passed away recently and when we called them, right away they said ‘yes.' They started crying because they were going to do an altar,” says Calvary manager Blanca Martinez, who on this day is wearing a crown of blood-red flowers in her hair and "half-skull’" face paint traditional for Dia de Los Muertos celebrations.
Calvary invited and helped guide dozens of parishioners through the process of creating Dia de Los Muertos altars for loved ones who had passed away this year. More than 70 more were created for Santa Clara Cemetery in Oxnard.
“So little by little, they come every day, and they add an item to the altar. They come on a daily basis,” says Martinez of the sisters.
The altar, one of more than 30 on display inside the mausoleum and outside in its grand entryway and courtyard, also includes little things relished in life; a bottle of soda pop, candy, a bag of Cheetos, along with a host of religious icons and personal family photographs.
“People that are not educated or are unfamiliar with this tradition, they might see it as something pagan or something that is not within the Catholic Church,” says Vega, whose face is also playfully smeared in skull makeup.
Vega says that for decades and even to this day, some Catholics may view Dia de Los Muertos as somehow sacrilegious.
Seeing a homemade altar with religions icons like the Virgin Mary alongside a bottle of dad’s favorite beer can just rub some people the wrong way. But those personal touches are intended to venerate the deceased, not blaspheme the sacred.
“In reality, the celebration of the Day of the Dead with altars, food and flowers was very traditional and for thousands of years the indigenous people celebrated,” says Vega.
“But when the Europeans arrived with Christianity they basically forbid the indigenous people to celebrate many of their rituals and celebrations.”
Over time, Dia de Los Muertos has been embraced by the Latino Catholic mainstream. This year the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese officially sponsored two consecutive weekends of celebrations in Los Angeles and Ventura County, though individual churches have done so for years, says Vega of the archdiocese.
“(But) officially coming from the archdiocese, it fosters not only the faith but also the tradition. And that can help society to understand and celebrate life in a different perspective,” he says.
Celebrations culminate Saturday when Archbishop José H. Gomez for the first time presides over a Dia de Los Muertos open air Mass at Calvary Cemetery.
“So truly the Day of the Dead Mass is a celebration of life, that our home truly is going to be in the other dimension,” says Vega.
“And Christ calls us. Because of him we are invited to eternal life.”
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