November 2, 2010 — The city of Ukiah came alive for Dia de los Muertos, with live music, freshly-baked bread, and little girls in colorful skirts with skulls and flowers painted on their faces. Mayor Juan Orozco, who has a full time job as a math teacher, also took on the role of event planner in the lead-up to the celebration. I
“We started the event last year, with just a little altar at the City Hall,” he recalled, ducking under an awning out of the rain as Mariachi Hernandez regaled the crowd with strings and horns. “And so we thought we would go all out this year. And every year I suspect will be better and better.”
Linda Jacinto is an educator who promotes culture through the bilingual newspaper Dos Mundos. She took a few minutes as the event was getting underway to describe the scene. “You can definitely get a little bit of a feel of what it’s like for people when you’re in Mexico,” she noted. “You’ll see the flowers, so we have the marigolds up on the altars. You’ll see offerings on the tables as well, set up as an altar. You see people smiling, doing arts and crafts. We’re following all the safety protocols, we’re keeping our masks on, it’s an outdoor event. The music is starting to play, so it makes it more vivid, more alive, and that’s what Dia de los Muertos is all about. It’s just to have that hope, have that faith, that life continues, even though you don’t see a body. You don’t see someone here, but their essence is here, you’re connected, you’re part of the cosmos, you’re part of the universe, so you are definitely here forever. And that's the message of Dia de los Muertos: that you will forever live in someone's heart and someone’s memory and somenes’ being.”
Ukiah City Councilwoman Josefina Duenas added that the worldwide pandemic has brought a shared grief to all of humanity. That makes it more important than ever to rejoice in the memories of the many people who have been lost in the last year and a half.
“We were speaking about what has been happening since the beginning of the pandemic,” she reflected; “and I think that many of us have lost somebody. And we want to gather today as much as possible, thinking about our humanity, about our losses, but also just thinking about rejoicing ourselves, because somehow we are still here and the ones who have departed still have somebody who remembers them.”
The two public altars were strung with flowers and mementos and photographs of departed loved ones, both human and animal. This year, images of young people were especially notable. “It’s incredibly sad,” said Supervisor Maureen Mulheren, who was a long-time Ukiah City Councilwoman herself. “Last year we also had a lot of people who passed from COVID, and that was the other important thing to remember, everybody who has lost their lives due to the pandemic. But we also have lost a lot of young people. And there are also some missing people.” She, too, thinks about the cultural importance of community grief and celebration. “I think for families that create an altar at home, it’s an incredibly personal and important way for them to celebrate their culture with their family. But when you have a community altar, you’re really bringing more awareness about the culture and the importance of events like Dia de los Muertos, days that remember everybody in the community.”
The celebration was supposed to be outside Civic Center, but was relocated to the pavilion at Alex Thomas Plaza due to the rain. People trickled in slowly at first, but once the music started, every seat was full. Everyone was feasting on Pan de Muerto, little skull-shaped loaves of bread with crossed bones on top, and taking sips of warm ajonjoli, a sweet, thick drink with lots of cinnamon.
Mariachi Hernandez, a family of professional musicians, drove in the rain from Philo. The lights from the altars sparkled off their instruments and the lines of silver studs sewn into their gleaming black suits. Orozco first spotted them at the county fair in Boonville. Their presence was a special gift. “Mariachis are very expensive, but what they said to me is that this is a community event and it’s for the people and it’s a good cause. It’s to honor our loved ones, and we’ll do it for free if we have to,” he reported, grateful for their community spirit. “But we are compensating them, at least for gas and food,” he added.
It’s an important day for the community to party with their loved ones, the living as well as the dead. Duenas pointed out that happiness can be complicated. And it’s okay to be happy for those whose suffering is over. “We rejoice when somebody is born, but we should also be rejoicing when somebody is gone, because seeing that person sick and suffering, it’s not human,” she said. “I mean, we should be happy to let them go. And that’s what we try to celebrate today. Just to be happy.”
Meanwhile, Orozco was pleased with the turnout: with the music, the custom-made Pan de Muerto, and the children performing traditional dance against the backdrop of the altars. And he’s inspired by festivals in nearby communities. He wants everyone to have a good time on Dia de los Muertos. “I was down in Healdsburg last night, and it was like a concert,” he laughed. “So like I said here, we’re hoping that every year it will be better, and we really want all the community to come. You know, you don’t have to be Latino, because you have loved ones that passed as well. So please bring memories of your passed loved ones and share them with us, and just have fun with us.”