Photos and text by Amy Kitchener and Crystal Murillo, ACTA
December 6, 2016

El Día de los Muertos, on November 1 and 2, is widely celebrated in California by people of Mexican descent as part of a sacred ritual to remember and commune with deceased loved ones. There are many regional and contextual variations with different types of celebratory activities taking place in homes, cemeteries, art centers, churches and other venues.

ACTA staff visited the unique event hosted by La Communidad Oaxacaqueña de Madera (the Oaxacan Community of Madera), which organized a series of workshops about the Mixtec traditions surrounding el Día de los Muertos culminating in a public celebration which was supported by ACTA’s Living Cultures Grants Program. The workshops provided instruction and history including how to grow a field of cempasúchiles (marigolds); cooking demonstrations for making dulces de calabaza (sweet squash) and camotes (sweet potatoes); and home altar preparations.

The event took place on a grape vineyard in rural Madera, in the San Joaquin Valley, where thousands of indigenous Mixtec immigrants make up a major part of farm labor in the state. About 500 people attended the event which included a large community altar, adorned with traditional foodstuffs to be shared by the visiting spirits of the deceased—pan de muerto (bread for Day of the Dead), fruits, mole, and sodas. Juana Gómez, the well-known host of the popular Mixteco/Spanish transnational radio program “La Hora Mixteca” on Radio Bilingüe hosted the event. Doña Juana explained that this is an event she has been organizing for over fifteen years in an effort to create a space for her community to come together to practice the important rituals held in honor of deceased loved ones. Back in Oaxaca, people make altars at home and visit the cemeteries to adorn gravesites, but in California, she has led her community in adapting to new circumstances where they are separated from their ancestral lands and can create new formats for cultural continuity, such as this event she co-organized to accommodate the large scale Mixteco community participation.

Visiting musicians Jorge Hernández, with wife Judith, and sons Alexis and Yael of the group Itandiyoo, from Santiago Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, Mexico, played traditional chilena rhythms on acoustic violin, jarana mixteca, and guitar. The crowd relished the communal meal of homemade chicken with mole, rice, beans, tamales, pan de muerto and champurado (a Mexican hot chocolate and corn beverage). The fiesta continued late into the evening culminating with a social dance with an electric chilena band.

Here are some links featuring other coverage of this event:

Radio Bilingue’s report by Juan Santiago includes a wonderful audio sampling of the event:

Vida en el Valle’s story by Elsa Mejia: