One of LA’s most popular music festivals was held last weekend in a cemetery. Not just any cemetery, but the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, final resting place of Johnny and De De Ramone, Neslon Eddy, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and many other stars of stage, screen and music. There among the gravestones, crypts and monuments, 40,000 people gathered to hear music from four stages, sample tequila and Estella Jalisco cervesa, admire one another’s costumes, and pay their respects to the deceased relatives of the hundreds of families who built altars commemorating their loved ones amid the grave stones.
The event was the 8th annual Dia de Los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, one of a dozen LA events replicating the Mexican celebration of life that honors loved ones who have passed from this life. Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery was created by the artistic visionaries, Tyler Cassity and Deisy Marquez, as a platform to combine the Mexican custom of remembering departed spirits by picnicking and celebrating on their graves with the creative and music communities of Los Angeles. At the heart of the event are over a hundred meticulously crafted altars and spiritual shrines which remember the departed and link ancient traditions with modern life.
Even in large Mexican cities Dia de Los Muertos is quietly marked by families spending a sunny day in a cemetery talking, eating, drinking, maybe playing the guitar or vihuela and singing in a memorial created for the day with pictures, flowers, candles and incense. But of course, this is Los Angeles, a county of 9 million, almost half of whom are Latino, and the American capital of the music business. The altars are there, and so are the celebrating families, but they are accompanied by 4 stages, 50 acts, costume contests, merchandize booths, film and TV crews, childrens’ art and craft tents, Aztec and folk dance groups, face painting and tens of thousands of people taking selfies from noon to midnight. It’s wonderful..
And it all worked. This year’s celebration was “The Year of Posada”, honoring the Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Over 100 years ago, Posada gave us many of the foundational images of Dia de los Muertos, like the ubiquitous sugar skulls and laughing skeletons that have become treasured and much replicated images of Mexican culture and identity. Festival goers who came to hear Ximena Sarinaña, Cuco, Nancy Sanchez and the global superstars from Columbia, Aterciopelados, also strolled among the altars and talked with the families who built them and read the mementos in English and Spanish.
Not all the altars were erected by families; Netflix, an event sponsor, curated several altars dedicated to characters that had died in various Netflix TV series. Circ du Soliel’s altars promoted characters from their upcoming bilingual production Luzia. The Ramone estate erected a display around Jonny Ramone’s statue and De De Ramone organization commissioned a De De Ramone tent with memorabilia.
Gates to the Cemetery opened at noon as Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses began circle the grounds and its lakes, working their way through quickly growing costumed crowds. They converged on the Main gate to start the Ceremonial Procession that wound dancers, drummers, musicians and concert goers to the Main stage on the other side of the grounds, abutting Paramount Pictures, Hollywood Forever’s cinematic neighbor. When the Procession ended, the swelling crowd, now thousands strong, circled the dancers for the Aztec Blessing ceremony.
Meanwhile, children’s art, face painting (for adults as well as children), Altar contest winners, art exhibitions took place on small stages and inside while bars, churro carts and food tents did a brisk business. At the Muerte Tradicíon Stage, in the far northeast corner of the Cemetery, the Chulita Vinyl Club DJ’s got the music going. To the east, Xocoyote Aztec Group rocked the El Mosaico Stage while in another corner, a 15 min walk away, DJ Victor Escalante took over from the Ballet Ehecatl Dance Company on the El Fandngo Stage, warming up the crowd for the Mexican alt Rock all-star band, Los Jaguares.
As the sun began to dim, lights came on in the altars, the stages and on many of the thousands of costumes as the crowd grew denser, the music louder, and the lines longer (although the event was so well-planned and managed that food and restroom waiting was pretty minimal – even the beer tents moved buyers through quickly). By the time the headliner Aterciopelados walked onto the cavernous Muerte y Tradicion stage at 10 pm, close to 10,000 people had packed themselves together on the lawn and on the grave sites and tombstones surrounding it. Smaller crowds engulfed the other stages and the party reached its peak, literally dancing on graves. But it was all in good fun – honoring the dead, LA style.