This weekend huge Día de Los Muertos celebrations will take place across Southern California, especially in Los Angeles, the second largest Spanish–speaking city in the world and a former Mexican pueblo. I will be at the 40,000+ person Día de Los Muertos: Coatlicue (Aztec mother of gods) celebration at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery down the street from Paramount Studios, and will report on it next week. But in the meantime, local communities are holding their own smaller celebrations to honor those from their community who have left us.
This weekend I attended Calavera, the Día de Los Muertos celebration of the Latino Equality Alliance of Los Angeles. In its third year, Calavera is the human-scale gathering of gay Latino community and their friends and families. It is held at the Mi Centró LGBT Community Center in the Boyle eights neighborhood, located on a tiny street behind a sheet metal wall in an industrial area (near an art gallery – if you watched the STARZ TV show Vida, you know that means trouble).
Unlike its gigantic cousins this weekend, the Calavera LGBTQ festival was a loving, community event for families, with plenty of children, abuelos (grandparents) and partners and spouses. Mi Centró had converted its courtyard and workshops into a venue and a party. The yard held a stage, about 80 folding chairs, a large dance floor, a makeshift bar, registration tables and pop up buffet. All very low key, very neighborhood, very welcoming. And of course, the final game of the MLB Playoffs was projected on a courtyard wall so the crowd could watch its beloved Dodgers win.
The stage was backed by a lovingly painted flat with the event logo and flanked by a smiling flowered skeleton astride an old-fashioned bicycle. The bar was wine and beer – drink tickets only — manned by two very handsome bartenders in white shirts and painted faces who grinned and grimaced at children as they handed them water bottles and vino and cerveza to their parents.
The food was homemade and to die for; tacos, tamales and meat-filled panecitos, served on paper plates by fast-moving, laughing young people. Two abuelas staffed a pair of planchas – gas-fired griddle tables – where they cooked an endless stream of tortillas. One scooped the dough manually from a large bowl and threw the sticky ball back and forth between her hands until it was flat, and then dropped it on the plancha. The courtyard with the ancient slap-slap tortilla sound heard every day in villages throughout Mexico. When an order was shouted, the other woman picked a done tortilla off the hot plancha with her seemingly asbestos fingers and spooned in the correct filling. Panecitas used two tortillas, sandwich-like, reheated to melt the cheese and hold them together. Topped with homemade red sauce and a mixture of shredded onions and carrots in vinegar, they were heavenly.
Inside the center artist Antonio Rael worked on a canvas in an open gallery, creating a single large painting throughout the night, attracting gawking children and appreciative parents. A few feet away in the next open gallery was the altar. Day of the Dead celebrations have multiple altars, each erected by a family to honor an ancestor. Calavera was different. Instead, a single altar was erected by Antony Guiterrez and Andrew Cervantes to honor those who died of AIDS, bullying, or were harassed to the point of suicide. While the deaths were heartbreaking, the altar was a work of art, covered with candles, photographs and prayers, and blessed with incense after a procession from the stage.
Then it was time for music! Emcees Gissele Bravo of Que Buena Radio and Saíd Garcia Solís from Estrella TV presided over a costume parade and competition. After prizes were awarded rapper Figgy Baby took to the dance floor and rhymed his stories of love and anger. He was followed by the gentle love songs of Irene Díaz, a beloved icon in the LA music community who has toured nationally and played on NPR’s Tiny Desk. The highlight of the evening was female impersonator Marta Beatchu whose “Selena” sang and danced and swirled around the courtyard, delighting the audience and making them laugh, sing and clap along.
Calavera was one of many human scale Día de Los Muertos celebrations held last weekend across La and they offered a precious opportunity to meet a community, learn is history, and honor its families, living and dead. This weekend the activity upshifts dramatically in size and excitement as the entire city becomes one large celebration of the dead. In addition to Día de Los Muertos: Coatlicue at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, there will be Día de Los Muertos Festival in Olvera Street, Noche de Ofrenda (Night of Offerings) down the road at Grand Park, the Carrera de Los Muertos (Run of the Dead) 5k race starting at the El Pueblo, Día de Los Muertos storytime events at the Central Library, and many more in bars and venues across the city. Plus, just up the 110 the dodgers will be winning the world Series in Chavez Ravine Stadium, (one can hope).
And then we celebrate Halloween!