What we gain from Día de los Muertos in turbulent times

Of all the altars that spanned the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on a warm Saturday in October, few had as large a crowd as the one dedicated to Donald Trump. Six tall skeletons were shrouded in colors of the rainbow, standing in a row behind a sign that proclaimed, “Fight for Impeachment.” On the lawn in front of them, smaller skeletons held placards that shared the sentiments that have both united and divided our nation over the past year: “Bridges Not Walls,” “Gay Rights Are Human Rights,” and “Save the Forest,” among others.

A man in a white T-shirt quietly lit a candle at the foot of the altar. His back faced the crowd of people taking photos with their phones; he was focused on the ashes, the fire, and the message spread out over the lawn and graves in front of him.

Generally observed on October 31st through November 2nd, Día de los Muertos traditionally celebrates the memory of those who have passed, and mocks death itself. Rather than viewing death as taboo or a source of fear, the holiday frames death as the ultimate equalizer. Hollywood Forever was uniquely appropriate for that theme; throughout the cemetery’s expansive grounds, people walked directly over graves. Standing on the lush grass growing over a real grave is, in a word, unsettling. But even more disarming is the sight of families sprawled around grave markers with bacon-wrapped hot dogs and $10 aguas frescas.

Initially, it felt discordant, like nails on a chalkboard or pineapple on pizza — but that strangeness was tempered by the crowds gathered around Mexican artists and political activists, who took the opportunity to proclaim their culture, perspectives, and long-running battles. And people listened.

The “Fight For Impeachment” altar wasn’t the only political display; Ilegal Mezcal, an artisanal mezcal company, posted a series of “Donald eres un pendejo” posters near the entrance to their pop-up bar. Elsewhere, a representative of Justice LA spoke to passersby in front of the coalition’s altar; near the El Mosaico stage, a Black Lives Matter altar commemorated those who had lost their lives to police violence. Each altar had been decorated with care, outfitted with colorful bouquets, rose petals, and framed photos of those who had been lost. Like the altars to departed family members, small details invited people to linger: the copy of “I Am Because We Are” on the Black Lives Matter altar, a sculpture of an anatomically correct heart on the grass in front of the “Fight for Impeachment” sign.

We stand in solidarity with all of the indigenous and marginalized people of color on this land and globally,” a sign on the Black Lives Matter altar read. “We lift up our brothers, sisters, two-spirits, and all those affected by systems of exploitation and oppression.”

Throughout the day, crowds of people filed into a cathedral mausoleum to view displays by Mexican artists, who stood by their paintings while people walked down the narrow halls. Michelle Taylor, who paints under the name Pinchi Michi, spoke with onlookers about her series of skeletons playing instruments, conflating death with joy. Elsewhere, Los Angeles band Very Be Careful performed vallenato songs between swigs from tall cans while their audience swayed; ballet folklórico groups gracefully swung their way through music pouring through speakers loud enough to rattle your bones.

Even in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, which boasts a population that is nearly half Latinx, the opportunity to become immersed in Mexican culture and to stand up close and personal with Mexican artists feels unique. We were steps away from Paramount Studios, and high in the hills, the Hollywood sign gleamed white — but the intimacy and movement of the Día de los Muertos events kept us grounded. We were captivated by the periodic sound of the Aztec drums, the shuffle of long skirts worn by people dressed in the vein of La Catrina, and the voices of people sharing an experience under the California sun.

It wasn’t perfect — I had reservations about the sight of Netflix’s faux altars to departed characters. Some stages were notably tucked away, like the stage behind the cathedral that hid moving performances by Viola Trigo. But it offered an opportunity to place the spotlight on people of color, and in that way, it was a success. Simply talking about complex issues isn’t enough. Becoming immersed in another culture, speaking with artists and performers and activists, and doing it all with a little bit of discomfort because of the quiet reminder of death underfoot — those are the ingredients for lasting encounters that invite conversation. Día de los Muertos is a day of memory, but it’s also a holiday that confronts the idea that everyone is equal in the end.

Today, that reminder is particularly timely.

Celebrating death feels discordant, but through it, we are able to experience beautiful performances and lasting traditions that can be appreciated by a wide range of people.

When we express ourselves through art, we turn our perspectives into communal experiences and invite others to share them with us. The lifting up of oppressed voices, the recognition of lives lost, the idea of protest through unity — these were all perspectives that resonated with onlookers on that day, walking across old graves, remembering and learning and existing together.

It was Día de los Muertos, but it was also a day for us all.