This Day of the Dead season in Santa Monica brings some usual challenges. The recent deaths of two Santa Monica homeboys clouds the celebratory day in tragedy and loss. A procession called by the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) on Saturday, Nov. 3 at 5:30 p.m. beginning at St. Anne’s Church will address this concern.
It also reminds us that the event was not widely celebrated prior to the momentous 1998 Nov. 2 “Vigil for Peace.” As in 1998, Santa Monica’s Day of the Dead this year requires a community’s reflection and coming together for collective solutions.
The Day of the Dead, a Mesoamerican ceremonial holiday going back several centuries across numerous civilizations, traditionally constitutes a deep collective mediation on the cyclical nature of death, departed ones, family and community. It is also rich in irony, mimicry and celebration.
The Aztecs actually dedicated several months to the ceremonies. When Spaniards violently colonized central Mexico they assigned it a single day. Spaniards demonized Aztec spirituality as satanic to justify military conquest, but couldn’t wipe out all Aztec culture (that’s why we have chocolate, guacamole, gum, piñatas, tamales, etc.). Like the unstoppable spiritual pilgrimages to sacred sites of Guadalupe/Tonantzin, Mesoamericans continued to practice their spiritual beliefs.
As much as the Castilian priests wanted Aztecs to forget, they could not halt the soulful procession of bodies to the altars of their dearly deceased loved ones.
In Santa Monica, Day of the Dead celebrations have a unique resurgence, and not without our own version of colonialist invasions, hijackings and historical erasures.
One need only take a look at the impressive large black flier circulating throughout the city and notice that the one organization that initiated city-wide celebrations 14 years ago, the PYFC, is missing. Ironically, it has been a year that has seen the city, particularly City Manager Rod Gould, go after PYFC by threatening to pull city dollars. City officials politically attack the PYFC, then ironically claim the Day of Dead tradition as their making.
It’s kind of like an old Paul Rodriguez joke: “They love Mexican culture, Mexican food, Mexican holidays, Mexican music… there’s only one thing they don’t like: the Mexicans!” Ones that speak up are “bad Mexicans.”
Teachers like Samohi’s Jose Lopez, Tania Fischer and teachers at Edison Elementary have for years taught lessons to their students around this special day. Edison will host another elaborate festival this Saturday afternoon. But starting in 1998, a truly collective and community tradition around Day of the Dead sprouted in the predominantly Latino and African-American Pico Neighborhood.
Pico Neighborhood activists, SMC MEChA and Samohi youth came together to celebrate the holiday. When gang violence erupted in mid-October that year, organizers transformed the event into a “Vigil for Peace.” The L.A. Times reported 1,000 people marching through the neighborhood calling for peace and social programs. Organizers then built the PYFC. Day of the Dead celebrations were held every year thereafter.
Indeed, the Westside tradition has evolved. The major event to check out is Paulina and Monica Sahagun’s weekend performances at 18th Street Arts Center. A procession on Saturday at 11 a.m. to Woodlawn Cemetery recalls the roots of Santa Monica. The PYFC first inaugurated this procession in 1998, and in 2000 we marched up 20th Street to the southwest section where most of the Californio ancestors are buried. Standing among the tombstones, 17th Street native Sal Galvan gave a lecture on the “hidden history” of Mexican Santa Monica, research from his UCLA master’s degree in urban planning.
One ancient concern of Dia de los Muertos was countering trauma by introducing the concept of death to the very young ones. Ceremonies involve playfulness, celebration and sweets. Skull masks mix with music, candles and candy.
On Thursday, Samohi Art Department and PYFC host altar display. As the most engaged educational event, cultural activists traditionally make classroom presentations explaining the meaning of the event. The Association of Mexican American Educators has long been part of this ethnic studies aspect. This year, Fischer worked with Grant school first-graders whose masks will be exhibited.
The Samohi Art Show features a prominent artist, surrounded by altars and figures designed by local students. Past artists have included Danny Flores, Danny Alonzo, Adan Avalos. In 2001 the art show featured rare original prints of Mexican master woodcut artist Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Ironically, for the first time in 14 years, nothing is scheduled at the Pico Youth and Family Center. City officials discouraged staff from organizing “cultural or political activities.” A trip to Arizona earlier in the year in solidarity with ethnic studies resulted in a bureaucratic backlash from city officials.
Local officials too commonly equate the center with its director, Oscar de la Torre, but we need to recognize that the PYFC is a community-built institution. Oscar should be commended for his leadership, making the center a dynamic place for youth for over 12 years. But the center is more than its director. It represents a local movement for social justice.
Like the Day of the Dead holiday, Pico residents need to take more ownership. We should see the PYFC as an institution created by its own residents. We have not forgotten ceremonies 1,000 years old. We should not forget institutions we built 12 years ago.
PYFC procession Saturday, Nov. 3 convenes at St. Anne’s at 5:30 p.m. ending at 16th Street and Delaware Avenue at 7:15 p.m. with tamales, champurrado, community speak out. Open to all humans and spirits.
Elias Serna is a film/business professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, member of Association of Mexican American Educators Santa Monica/West L.A. Chapter.