As songs like “Suavecito” by Laura León or “Juana la Cubana” by Fito Olivares flooded the air with music at Mariachi Plaza, families from around Boyle Heights and beyond began to occupy 1st Street.
Children in calavera face paint ran up and down the avenue freely while the smell of tacos was on the nose of every visitor.
The 1st Street Business Association worked with Self Help Graphics to organize an evening block party to celebrate Dia de los Muertos on Friday, which hundreds of people attended.
The association, composed of several businesses along the 1st Street corridor in Boyle Heights, organizes community events through the cooperation and collaboration of cafes, tiendas, non-profits and bars along one of the neighborhood’s main arteries.
Nico Avina, co-owner of Espacio 1839, a gift shop by the plaza, stepped out of his business donning a paper mache skull and golden eagle mask.
Avina turned and surveyed the crowd that was growing along 1st Street. Children were creating chalk art on the asphalt and painters were applying pigments to paintings in the intersection of Vicente Fernandez and 1st Streets.
“This is all here to show the community the beauty that we can do once we join together,” he said. “This is a community event for and by the community.”
He stressed that the association isn’t trying to foster a “pay to play” ethos, as some Dia de los Muertos events charge upwards of $35 to participate in the festivities. Avina said that organization is key to bringing in resources for the community to enjoy for free.
And when it comes to celebrating a traditional holiday, Avina said Boyle Heights does it like no other.
“It goes back to our indigenous identity. We have indigenous roots so our connection to Dia de los Muertos is in our blood,” Avina said.
Carlos Ortez, owner of Un Solo Sol, a plant based restaurant across from Mariachi Plaza, was taking customer orders from the inside of his brick and mortar shop.
The festivities outside didn’t seem to falter Ortez’s service – he saw the event as an opportunity for new customers to peek their heads into Un Solo Sol and check out their offerings.
Ortez said he considers the neighborhood the real Arts District of Los Angeles and even refers to it as “The Latino Harlem” of the city and said traditions like Dia de los Muertos take on different forms in this region than they do anywhere else.
“Boyle Heights breathes Mexican transformed into American. That’s what Boyle Heights is,” Ortez said.
Francisco Perale stood by an ofrenda adorned with framed photos of Freddy Mercury, Mac Miller, and Amy Winehouse. The faces were dimly lit by short candles scattered over the altar.
The 1st Street non-profit where Perale works, The Wall/Las Memorias, assembled the ofrenda to pay respect to people who’ve passed from HIV/AIDS or opioid overdoses. The frames were flanked by boxes of Naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdoses, which Perale and his team were offering to the community at no charge.
“We also want to showcase family members and people that we loved,” Perale pointed to a picture of Tlaloc, his faithful service dog for 14 years who passed away two years ago.
Faith León was taking a moment to ready herself to perform a charrería dance in front of a growing crowd by the stage at Mariachi Plaza. She stood in a sharp, maroon shirt, with half of her face painted like a skull and a yellow-tinged lasso at her side.
She has been dancing for years with Folklorico Revolucion, a dancing group from East LA. Beyond her love for dancing and performance, León saw the beauty in cultural community events that honor traditional Mexican holidays such as Dia de los Muertos.
“I think it represents an amazing appreciation for the community and it brings together a bunch of different people, vendors and performers,” León said. “And of course celebrating what the Day of the Dead represents, which is family and never forgetting our loved ones who have passed.”