Happy faces, elaborate outfits, and beautifully designed altars were on full display at Self Help Graphics’ 50th annual Dia De Los Muertos festival Saturday at the East LA Civic Center.
The historic arts center in Boyle Heights has served as a valuable resource for generations of Eastside families, and its annual commemoration of this important Latin American holiday is one of its best-known activities. Self Help Graphics’ is one of the longest-running celebrations in Los Angeles, according to Marvella Muro, the organization’s director of artistic curatorial and education programs.
This year’s festivities kicked off with a procession at Mariachi Plaza where attendees gathered to listen to spoken word poets and Aztec dance performers adorned with colorful plumage and skeleton facepaint danced to the beat of a loud banging drum.
These performances were centered around themes of loss, the struggle to preserve indigenous customs and Latino identity in the U.S., as well as a celebration of ancestors who paved the way for the present generation to celebrate this holiday. “This is vital because it gives artists a platform to express themselves; art is crucial to our culture,” said Muro.
Once the performances ended, a line of dancers led the crowd of 50-60 people down the steps of the Mariachi Plaza Metro Station and rode the E line towards the East LA Civic Center.
Passengers were treated to a special surprise: poets on each end of the car took turns reciting intimate, bittersweet poems about loved ones who had passed.
“I can’t conceive to perceive you gone as real, reality stood still that day,” said one poet in reference to her late mother. “The wind in the trees did not blow the same. Trust me everyone I’m okay, trust me everyone I’m not okay and that’s okay.”
Festival attendees then exited the train and crossed the street to the civic center where they were greeted by a wide area lined with vendor booths, altars commemorating historical LA figures, and musical performances by various bands.
Artist William Acedo, a longtime artist volunteer with Self Help Graphics, was admiring a large paper mache skeleton figurine that towered over passersby as they walked towards the altars. Acedo told Boyle Heights Beat that he helped oversee the group of students who made the skeleton wrapped in a paper mache floral dress. “I can’t believe that was over 20 years ago,” Acedo said.
Hailing from Santa Cruz, Acedo arrived in LA decades ago and has been attending the Self Help Graphics event for as long as he can remember. “Through Day of the Dead, it’s given me the space and opportunity to be a full-blown pocho and proud of it.”
Other attendees like longtime friends Deborah Taren and Mia Flores shared a similar sentiment. The Eastside natives celebrate the holiday as a way to reconnect to their ancestors who observed the tradition but could not pass it on. “We honor our mothers, our grandmothers, our great grandmothers,” Flores said.
Taren agreed and added that the day’s festivities also served as a way to stay connected to her East LA roots. “At my core, I’m always going to be an Eastside girl and we’re here to honor that as well.”