On Sunday, hundreds of Oaklanders stepped out into the rain to pay homage to those who’ve passed on. The 14th annual Fruitvale Dia de Los Muertos Festival, put on by Oakland’s Unity Council, was a stunning study in eye-popping color as visitors perused altars set up in booths along E. 12th Street dedicated to the deceased, ate hot churros and watched traditional dances backed by a thunderous chorus of drums.
Dia de Los Muertos, which means Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday with roots in an Aztec celebration of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld. The festivities take place on November 2, the day after the Catholic celebration of All Souls Day. (This year, Oakland celebrated about a week early.) Participants in Fruitvale constructed intricate altars filled with colorful objects—pictures of the deceased, skulls that honor their ancestors, fruit, candles and marigolds, to name just a few. The back of the altar often featured a circle, or sunrise, to symbolize the cycle of human life and death. Once the altars were complete, people set up chairs inside their lavish creations, explained the altars’ significance to passersby, and occasionally got up to go pay a visit to their neighbors.
While many festival participants in Oakland set up altars that honored the dead, another segment of the Mexican American community used Dia de Los Muertos to make a statement. One group of young people set up an altar in protest of the gang injunctions passed in Oakland. Another woman used her altar space as a “prayer” for the health of the world’s oceans—she decorated it with hand-drawn pictures of mermaids.
Oakland resident Ernesto Hernandez Olmos stuck to a more traditional interpretation of the day—on his immense altar, faces of his deceased relatives and friends stared out into the gray day. Still, the vibe was anything but morbid. Even with the requisite wealth of skeletal imagery, it was clear that Olmos and others were there not to wallow in grief but to celebrate lives well lived.
Olmos, who has been participating in the festival since he moved to Oakland from Oaxaca, Mexico, says he glad to have brought this tradition to his new home with him. “I’ve been doing this since I was five years old,” he says. “When I moved here twelve years ago, I wanted to get involved in this festival, too.”