SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—The celebration of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) originated thousands of years ago in ancient Mexico, by those who believed death was not truly the end.
For them, dead loved ones remained an important part of a community, kept alive through memory and storytelling. And during Día de los Muertos, the spirits of those dead could temporarily return to the mortal world.
“It is an incredibly significant holiday,” said Consuelo Alba, executive director of the Watsonville Film Festival (WFF). “And it brings us together. We all have loved ones that aren’t here anymore. Everyone can connect with it, and resonate with why it’s important.”
This year Día de los Muertos celebrations are planned across Santa Cruz County. Festivities begin Friday in Watsonville’s City Plaza, where WFF, along with various other local organizations, will host its second annual Day of the Dead Fiesta.
“Last year was an amazing experience,” Alba said. “It grew organically. People here feel very strongly about celebrating this holiday. We knew we had to do it again.”
Families are invited to come enjoy music, dancing, arts and crafts and other activities starting at 4 p.m. Altars, or ofrendas, will be arranged throughout the plaza. A community altar will be set up for those who want to bring photos the day of—though Alba warns that there is limited space.
“We welcome anyone who wants to participate… but we are still figuring out how much space we have,” she said. “If there is a growing interest to make the ofrendas a bigger part of the event… next year we’ll expand.”
New this year is a Catrinas and Catrines Parade, where guests can show off their elegant skeleton outfits. There will also be a special guest appearance by Mexican-American Santa Cruz Warriors player Juan Toscano, who Alba said was eager in being part of the event.
At dusk will be a screening of the Disney/Pixar movie “Coco” (Spanish with English subtitles), which tells the story of a young boy named Miguel as he travels to the Land of the Dead. Families are invited to bring their own blankets and low chairs to watch the film.
“‘Coco’ explains so well what this holiday is all about,” Alba said. “I think it introduced a lot of people to these traditions, and now more people are interested in it. They want to be part of it.”
Alba added that it was especially exciting to have the film be shown in Watsonville.
“Our plaza is just like the plaza in the movie,” she said. “You have these excited kids coming dressed as Miguel… It’s just wonderful.”
North County celebrates
On Saturday the Día de los Muertos Community Festival will return to downtown Santa Cruz. The event, one of the largest held annually in the city, is hosted by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and cultural organization Senderos.
Helen Aldana, Intercultural Programs Coordinator for the Art and History Museum, explained how the festival is broken up into three parts. Things kick off at the museum, 705 Front St., at 12:30 p.m. with face painting, crafts and performances by local music and dance groups.
Guests are then invited to participate in a ceremonial Día de los Muertos procession to Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park at 2 p.m., and then onto Evergreen Cemetery at 3 p.m., where altar installations will be set up.
“I think that’s what makes this event special,” Aldana said. “That we have an actual procession. It’s incredible… hundreds of people walking down the streets, passing businesses and houses. It’s a beautiful sight to see.”
More crafts and entertainment will be held at Evergreen, and Mexican food and drinks will be offered courtesy of Senderos. At 6:15 p.m., the festival will host its own screening of “Coco,” with popcorn provided.
“It is a celebration of life,” Aldana said. “It is a reminder for us that death is a part of life, and a way to honor those who’ve gone before us.”
Organizers are still looking for more people to sign up to build ofrendas. Anyone interested may contact Aldana at 316-4584 or email@example.com.