On Saturday, October 30, Downtown Santa Monica Inc. is honoring Día de los Muertos, highlighting the traditional Mexican cultural celebration of life and death with live entertainment, art installations and family-friendly activities on the Third Street Promenade. Photo Courtesy of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.

Santa Monica rolls out the red carpet for special celebration

By Bridgette M. Redman

Sometimes an artist’s most fanciful flights of imagination are also the ones that hit closest to home.

The Third Street Promenade will spring to life this Saturday with a celebration of death that includes altars, dance, art and music.

The Santa Monica community will celebrate the lives of those who have gone on before us with the Día de los Muertos Community Celebration from 5 to 10 p.m. It’s a family-friendly celebration that will include booths with goods from more than 30 local BIPOC vendors.

“We were very careful to incorporate as many members of the community as possible, paying tribute to tradition,” said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. “We wanted to provide our community with ample opportunities to learn about the importance of Día de los Muertos while also giving them a chance to have some fun, dance, sing and celebrate.”

Activities will include traditional ballet folkorico dances, mariachi music, community altars, La Catrina sculptures, face painting and kids’ crafts, and a makers market with BIPOC vendors that Angel City Market curated. The celebration will begin with dancing at 5:30 on the Promenade Main Stage.

“It should be a fun, family-friendly event that celebrates the cultural significance behind Día de los Muertos,” Rawson said. “Santa Monica Ballet Folklorico will offer a traditional Aztec blessing. The dance is a form of prayer and is the traditional way to open a Día de los Muertos Ceremony. It will be followed by a traditional folklorico dance performance.”

Others performing that day include Ballet Folklorico Flor de Mayo, the Santa Monica Mariachi Perla del Oste, DJ Funky Caramelo, DJ Sizzle Fantastic of Cumbiaton LA and students who will give a presentation on the importance of Dia de los Muertos traditions. DJ Sizzle Fantastic will host a dance party.

Returning this year are larger-than-life sculptures of “La Catrina” by Ricardo Soltero that will dominate the promenade. The sculptures range up to 14 feet and are decked in brightly colored traditional Mexican attire. La Catrina was created by Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posado and the sculptures will be viewable throughout three blocks of the Promenade starting October 29 through November 2.

“We love how colorful they are and that they are created by a local artist with a passion for representing Latin American culture,” Rawson said. “The fact that they are quite large really leaves a lasting impression. People love to pose with them. They are truly befitting of the Grande Dame of Death.”

Local high schools creating altars for celebration

Seven Latinx high school clubs are banding together to create altars for the celebration. Altars are traditional parts of a Día del los Muertos celebration. They are traditionally bedecked with food that lost loved ones liked as well as games or personal mementos. They invite those who have died to return for the day and visit their loved ones.

The altars created by students, local organizations and artists will be on display from October 30 to November 2. Dr. Guadalupe Miereles-Toumayan works with students at Santa Monica High School and has led the collaboration between the groups there and at University High School.

“The desire to express their cultural background is very strong,” Miereles-Toumayan said. “They are very excited because they are working together and collaborating, and feel welcome in downtown Santa Monica.”
The two high schools will have community altars in different spaces downtown. In addition to recognizing family members, they will honor classmates and students who have passed away. They have reached out to parents and close friends to get an OK and to find songs or speeches that honor those individuals. Student will also bring pictures from their own family members.

Each altar will have several levels, representing that when someone dies they are supposed to go through seven levels before they reach heaven. The altars recognize the belief that the dead will come and visit as they move on to their next level of life. The altars include several traditional elements. Flowers are included not only as decoration but because the smell is supposed to guide the loved ones to come and find the place where they are honored and invited.

“They usually have a list to follow of all the things they are going to be setting up,” Miereles-Toumayan said. “The candles are very important as a light to guide the dead, the flower is for the loved ones to smell and to come. They put their loved ones’ favorite foods. You’re going to be able to see some games adults play like Bingo or cards. For the kids you’re supposed to put their favorite toys…If there were any personal items they enjoy having with them, you set it up on the altar for them and see that they are remembered and respected and that you honor what they left behind.”

Miereles-Toumayan explained that the altars represent a fusion of cultures from the early Hispanic times to after the Spaniards conquered Mexico. Today’s Day of the Dead celebration combines both Christianity and early Hispanic traditions.

She said it is very important for her students to be able to collaborate and promote awareness of this cultural event. Death is often seen as something scary and difficult to understand, and this celebration shows why the culture welcomes the dead. She feels her students are taking advantage of the opportunity to advocate for their identity and their cultural background. They can explain why their parents have altars at home while feeling proud and embracing their traditions and their Latinx culture.

“It is very important to be able to recognize the cultural practices from different races because if we embrace diversity, we are going to be able to value each other’s cultures and especially Latinx students need to have a sense of belonging,” Miereles-Toumayan said.

The clubs are putting together a list of altars and the practices they have at home to share with the community. Each club will bring something different and they’ll explain why they have each item and the different practices that each family has.

Celebration welcomes people back to open-air events

While last year Downtown Santa Monica Inc. was unable to hold traditional events and instead chose to produce passive events with a strong public art component using empty storefronts, this year’s event has gone back to traditional forms in large part, Rawson said that people getting vaccinated has helped to slow the spread of COVID. She’s looking forward to people returning to tdowntown.

“We want people to know that this is a free, family-friendly event for people to come together and enjoy a sense of normalcy after such trying times,” Rawson said. “It’s a safe place to celebrate the holiday and, for those who are unfamiliar, learn more about the importance of the Day of the Dead and its roots in the Latinx community and beyond.”

What: Día de los Muertos Celebration
Where: Third Street
Promenade, with performances on the Promenade Main Stage
at the 1300 block
When: Saturday, October 30 from 5 to 10 p.m.
Sculptures will be on display from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. October 29 to November 2. Community altars will be on view October 30 through November 2.