Altars specifically crafted for those who have passed are at the heart of this ritual, which reflects the view of life and death as a natural continuum. Traditionally, in Mexico and now in many countries around the world, residents create altars in their homes dedicated to a deceased family member, ancestor or friend.
To honor this person and attract his or her spirit for this annual visit, the faithful place on the altar the deceased's favorite foods and drink; items that represent a life's work, passion or family; burning candles; and pungently fragrant orange marigolds. These particular flowers are said to light the path home for the deceased during the Day of the Dead.
"This is one of my very favorite events in Old Town," said Diane Powers of Bazaar del Mundo, a festive group of shops that for years have presented remarkable Mexican and Latin American arts and crafts. "The Tour of Altars is very dramatic and especially spectacular in the evening, when each altar is aglow with a multitude of candles. Also not to be missed is a visit to El Campo Santo Cemetery along San Diego Avenue, where the gravesites are decorated and the whole cemetery is illuminated with hundreds of candles."
More than 40 altars will be on view indoors and outside Old Town San Diego businesses, museums, shops and restaurants during this two-day event. Visitors are invited to add personal items, photographs or messages to the large public altar at El Campo Santo Cemetery. In this way, the altar will be enriched bit by bit and reflect the common spirit underlying this holiday.
Now in its fourth year, Old Town San Diego's Día de los Muertos is presented by Save Our Heritage Organisation, San Diego County's largest historic preservation group, as part of its educational and cultural programming. SOHO's offices are in Old Town and the group operates the Whaley House Museum and the Old Adobe Chapel.
"We think it's especially fitting to celebrate this holiday in Old Town, the oldest part of San Diego and historically multicultural, having been settled first by Native Americans, then the Spanish and Mexicans, and then Americans." said Alana Coons, SOHO's Director of Education and Communications and the event's chief organizer. And Coons explains how important it is that visitors understand that Día de los Muertos is not to be confused with Halloween, which precedes it; the celebration is neither ghoulish nor morose, but festive, colorful, and joyful. "This celebration is a means of bringing the community together to experience the tradition and culture surrounding Day of the Dead. We hope everyone will embrace the magic and leave the event with something lasting on an emotional level, as well as having just a great, fun time."
For the second year as the presenting sponsor, Cafe Coyote makes the event possible. They offer indoor and patio dining with on street views of the procession at 2461 San Diego Avenue. Many of Old Town's restaurants, cafes and pubs, will be offering signature drinks and dishes, some based on the traditional Día de los Muertos foods.
Fiesta de Reyes will have a Day of Dead artist installation not to be missed, as well as at Tienda de Reyes one of their two altars will be in memory of Dr. Seuss.
At the Old Adobe Chapel on Conde Street an elaborate altar surrounded by clouds of marigolds is inspired by a large, 17th-century oil painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, from a private collection that will be its centerpiece.
Yet another large altar, this one on view outdoors, will be devoted to José Guadalupe Posada and will feature some of his popular, widely circulated art. Considered the father of Mexican printmaking, he is especially well known for prints of lively calaveras, or skeletons, that initially played out moral and satirical tales. Most famous of these may be La Catrina, a female skeleton with a large grin and a flamboyant hat decorated with feathery plumes and flowers. She represents the wealthy class and Posada's point in illustrating her at the time of the Mexican Revolution, around 1910, was to remind everyone that no matter what our station in life, we all end up as calaveras.
Visitors may want to take a self-guided Tour of the Altars during the day and again at night, for two very different experiences. Maps for this tour can be downloaded from the user-friendly website SDDayOfTheDead.org, as are other helpful maps showing the Old Town public transit station, parking lots, and information booths. Maps will be available during both days of as well.
One of the celebration's most moving events is the candlelight procession held on the second day of the celebration, November 2. Visitors may pick up candles from participating businesses in Old Town.
The procession begins at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park at the intersection of Twiggs Street and San Diego Avenue and follows San Diego Avenue several blocks to El Campo Santo Cemetery. The celebrants will sing a simple song called "Las Calaveras," with verses in Spanish and English. This song is performed by two singers with skull-painted faces on the festival's website, complete with subtitles, so participants can learn it in advance HERE. At the cemetery, they'll find a community altar, where they may leave photographs, messages, flowers or tokens of affection for their loved ones.
Traditional music, dancing, and family-oriented craft activities will also animate the streets and plazas of Old Town. Many craft-making sessions are free and designed for all ages. Come make paper masks or flowers, have your face painted to look like a colorful sugar skull or decorate plaster sugar skulls to honor someone who has departed this life.
For more information about this free event for all ages, visit SDDayOfTheDead.org or contact SOHO at (619) 297-9327