What is said to be the oldest public celebration of the Day of the Dead in the United States returns Nov. 2 to Boyle Heights, where it was first held nearly 50 years ago.

The 46th annual Día de los Muertos Celebration and Exhibition will take place Saturday, 4 to 10 pm, at Self Help Graphics & Art (1300 E. 1st St.), according to a press release. The commemoration begins with “an indigenous danza blessing/public procession” from Mariachi Plaza to Self Help’s location a few blocks away, led by Danza Chicomecatl. The official program will begin at 5 pm with a blessing and various speakers and continue through the evening with multiple musical performances.

The free event will take place in a “a festival-like atmosphere, anchored by our #AncestralLights exhibition with traditional altars, family workshops, a muertito marketplace, food vendors, and live entertainment for the whole family.” Quetzal singer Martha González and ABC7 reporter Anabel Muñoz will emcee; performers include Buyepongo, Weapons of Mass Creation, Blanco y Negro, The Linda Lindas and three Méndez High School groups –Mariachi Jaguares, Folklórico de Méndez High School and Méndez Marching Band and Color Guard.

Saturday’s celebration is the culmination of a series of activities related to Día de los Muertos organized by Self Help, including a number of Saturday workshops held at the East Los Angeles library in October. The “Ancestral Lights” exhibition, which opened Oct. 10, continues on view through Nov. 27. It was co-curated by Bay Area artist Melanie Cervantes, who created this year’s commemorative poster.

As customary, the exhibit’s main altar was created by East Los Angeles artist Ofelia Esparza, a 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellow who has been associated with Self Help’s Día de los Muertos since the holiday was commemorated at Boyle Heights’ Evergreen Cemetery in the 1970s. This year, the revered altarista will be creating an altar for the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum in Washington D.C. (read story in Brooklyn & Boyle).

Esparza is prominently featured in the “Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead” episode of KCET’s “Artbound,” which premiered in May and was screened Oct. 23 at Self Help in Boyle Heights. The documentary –which is streaming free on various platforms– details how Los Angeles’ appreciation of the Mexican holiday stems from the original commemoration at Self Help in 1972. According to experts cited, the original commemoration was deeply connected to the activism taking place in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, as part of the Chicano Movement for Civil Rights. 

The documentary can be watched here:

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