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Day of the Dead

Los Angeles

In a light breeze from ceiling fans, dozens of decorated paper plates suspended inside the Mercado La Paloma (Dove Marketplace) turned gently or swung slightly on their colored strings. Children had written on the plates and pasted on pictures of themselves or others.

Stated one plate, which featured a photograph of three boys in green T-shirts: “Thanks to the sacrifices our parents made, we are here today in this great country.” It said their parents were from three regions of Mexico, Aqua Calientes, Herrera and Jalisco. It was easy to read between the lines that these were parents who had come across the border whether invited or not.

The trio who decorated the plate were participants in “Clean and Green,” a local part-time paid employment program for youngsters who pick up trash, tidy up empty lots and can be called on by community groups to help out.

Clean and Greens had helped set up the outside stalls for the fiesta that marked Día de los Muertos -- Day of the Dead -- Nov. 2 at the Mercado, a seven-days-a-week indoor marketplace project of the nonprofit Esperanza Community Housing in downtown Los Angeles.

The regular stalls feature handmade wares from Mexico and Central and South American countries, ethnic food stalls and a bookstore that specializes in children’s books with Spanish on one page and English on its opposite. The walls are a community art gallery.

On Nov. 2 the outside stalls were crowded with children decorating sugar skulls and designing paper masks that are as much a part of Day of the Dead traditions as the elaborately designed altars inside the marketplace itself.

Down through Mexico, from the crowded cemeteries of colonias that abut Tijuana dumps where families survive picking through the trash, into and beyond Central America -- where communities mourn the war-created losses of the 1980s -- the Day of the Dead is a vast, freeform honoring.

It takes place in cemeteries and churchyards, schools, public places and private homes. Loved family members, friends or entire villages of those who have died or were killed, recently or years ago, are memorialized.

There are no rules and few guidelines.

The folkloric Día de los Muertos creation -- like the intention of the individual or family group that decorates the grave or builds the altar -- is personal, unique and fleeting: Setting up the altars is popular religiosity as performance art.

In the Mercado La Paloma, one altar commemorated those who lost their lives in the Yucatán, Mexico, floods a year ago. Another, a family altar, with decorated breads, statues, pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, candles, beads and photographs of the deceased, thoughtfully included two bottles of Corona beer.

At their Guatemala crafts stall, the Espinosa family had empty bowls and filled flasks of water at two simulated gravesites made of mulch. Crosses of fresh flowers decorated each mound. The accompanying nearby altar honoring Espinosa forebears was colorfully crowded with family and cultural memorabilia.

Religious affiliation was not an issue. Three stallholders had combined their skills to construct an extensive shrine to the painter Frida Kahlo, the communist wife of the muralist Diego Rivera.

Explained stallholder Julia Gonzales, one of the organizers, “Frida was a liberated woman of the ’30s and ’40s, she was mujer de las mujeres, the woman of the women.”

In one aisle, children surrounded a music-accompanied mime troupe that enacted a bony dance of skeletons in a routine that may have provided the inspiration for the “Hokey-Pokey,” as the skeletons put their left leg in, their left leg out and shook it all about.

The day’s artifacts on sale included miniatures of everyday people, mariachi bands, school busloads of children, a wedding ceremony, entire villages -- but all the characters were skeletons, all the faces skulls.

The Grand Avenue at 37th Street market does not organize its Day of the Dead simply as a commercial offering with cultural overtones. In this essentially Latino neighborhood near the University of Southern California, there are deliberate underlying themes. Solidarity is one; health promotion is another.

To the families enjoying the day, the Esperanza Salud (health) stall offered fliers that warned of lead paint in old houses and announced free diabetes testing. Posters at the stall called on the county to reverse its health care cutbacks -- Los Angeles has recently closed 11 of its 18 community clinics and two of its hospitals.

There’s a further method to the Mercado Day of the Dead madness: celebrating roots. That’s why children suspend their plates from the ceiling.

The plates describe their lives or touch base with their family origins. Little Evelyn Zamora wrote: “I am 5 years old. I live in an apartment with a lot of kids.” Esteban Carrillo said he was “a Lakers, Raiders, Dodgers fan.”

One little boy or girl had fastened to a plate a small, woven grass basket. The inscription on the plate read: “This is a basket from Guatemala. I hope to go there one day to get to know my family.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

Related Web site

Mercado La Paloma

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002