Cynthia Chavarria is shown Friday with an altar she created for her late mother, Agnes Rodriguez, who died at age 102. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE—An ancient tradition from Mexico of honoring their dead continues to live through modern-day celebrations known as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, this time of year.

On Nov. 1 hundreds visited Watsonville City Plaza to pay homage to past loved ones by creating nine altars around the bandstand in the second annual Coco + Fiesta de Día de Muertos Fiesta presented by Watsonville Film Festival.

“This is an important collaboration with those in our community, including local artists, students and teachers, business people, the city and anyone walking by that wants to be a part of the tradition,” said Olga Fuentes, who helped spearhead the event. “This is an ancient tradition that is here today to help pay respect to those that have left us. It’s beautiful and it’s all-inclusive.” 

Maura Leonor, of Community Life Services, South County, said she felt honored to be able to build an altar for her friend Felipa De Leon, who died Oct. 8 of ovarian cancer at age 51. 

“She was a friend of this community—of Watsonville—and we wanted to be here to give the whole community a chance to remember and celebrate her life,” Leonor said. 

“For me, it was very emotional; it brought out a lot of feelings that are not necessarily sad—it’s more like happy tears,” Leonor said. “It seemed like a lot of people came out and many of them were from out of town; there were a lot of unfamiliar faces. People wanted to immerse themselves in this culture and be a part of this culture. This tradition is thousands of years old and was celebrated from Mayans so many years ago.”

The free community event featured the animated film, “Coco,” and live dance performances by Esperanza del Valle, Raíces Mestizas, Estrellas de Esperanza and the White Hawk Aztec Dancers. A special treat was the Catrinas Catwalk where community members, dressed in elegant attire, took to the stage with their faces painted as festive skeletons.

The altars varied in content, with photos, fresh flowers, personal memorabilia and favorite food and beverage items of those that died. They also feature artwork, papel picado designs, clothing, musical instruments and various forms of human skulls, some with expressions of a whimsical mockery of death and dying.

“Making this altar here today is so special,” said Cynthia Chavarria. “I am honoring my mother who died at 102 years old—Agnes Rodriguez. She used to walk right through this plaza all the time from her home over to the Bonanza 88 store right over there [near El Alteño]. This is about respect.”

Pajaro Valley Arts, Watsonville Brillante and Mariposa Arts offered family activities, including face-painting, paper-flower making and colorful mosaic making.

“We want to thank all the participants—sponsors, funders, collaborators, artists, dancers, families, volunteers—for making the event so beautiful and special,” said Consuelo Alba, executive director of the Watsonville Film Festival. “The community is really embracing Day of the Dead celebration and we are already getting ready for Día de Muertos 2020. We want to make it an annual tradition in Watsonville.” 

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Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. More recently Good Times & Press Banner. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.


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