The message is announced with rows of yellow marigolds, flapping crepe-paper banners, smiling photographs and personal artifacts enjoyed by the deceased in the best of times. Not with prayer cards, rosaries or copies of eulogies.
The Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead that coincides with All Souls Day has taken over Gloria Molina Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles through Thursday, Nov. 2. The event remembers those who’ve passed with 20 decorated altars — or ofrendas — to life, not death; celebration, not mourning; and hope overcoming despair — scattered in the 12-acre park at 200 N. Grand Ave.
“I don’t think of it as a time where people are mournful or sad,” said Julian Smalley, a transplant from England, viewing the altars on a sunny Oct. 30. “I see it as a celebration and I like that. That is positive.”
Multimedia artist, activist and exhibit curator, Consuelo G. Flores, who has created altars for more than 12 years, was asked by a first-time altar-maker this year why she doesn’t fall into a heap of crushing sadness doing this job.
“I said to her, it is not easy,” Flores said during an interview on Tuesday, Oct. 31. “You are keeping that person’s memory alive. You are making sure that person is known beyond your personal relationship, plus how that person influenced who you became.”
Sometimes, altar-makers communicate the gifts passed down to the current generation, Flores said. “Like how to be the best mother. Or how to read and write in Spanish. Those are the gifts I am talking about.”
A family altar to Gloria Molina remembered the county supervisor who died at age 74 in May. Molina pushed for the park’s creation, which was transformed from a heap of rusting metal and concrete structures into a civic, green space in 2012. And the trailblazer was the first Latina elected to the California state Assembly, Los Angeles City Council and L.A. County Board of Supervisors. The park was named after her in March after she announced she had terminal cancer.
“She was the smartest woman I ever met,” said Martha Molina, no relation and now retired, who was the supervisor’s field director. She learned how to talk to constituents who were seeking help. “She’d tell me ‘Anyone calling on the phone, you treat them like it was your grandmother, and you get to the bottom of it.’ Every assignment, she challenged me.”
Along with Molina was Alma Martinez, Molina’s chief of staff, and Tina Marquez-Herzog, her representative for the San Gabriel Valley. Marquez-Herzog pointed out artifacts on the altar built by the former supervisor’s daughter, Valentina Martinez. They included stacks of DVDs of her favorite movies, “West Side Story,” “Guys and Dolls” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Everything here shows her love of old movies, her passion for cooking and her devotion to quilting,” said Martinez. “Look, there’s a photo of Gloria with a sewing machine.”
Besides curating the exhibit, Flores also put together altar No. 17: “From Monterey Park to Maui: A Remembrance,” a tough assignment but one that she felt compelled to take on. She grew up in East Los Angeles but often visited Monterey Park’s shops and restaurants with her mother, she said. She also has connections to Hawaii.
On the altar there are no pineapples or leis that suggest Hawaii’s colonization, she said, but rather simple tree branches and fruit reflecting the islands’ indigenous community. And she’s opened the space for the community in L.A. to place photographs or other remembrances.
She wrote that the mass shooting at a dance hall in Monterey Park on Jan. 21 that killed 11 people “was the start of what has become a year of strife, death and destruction.” She added that it was a year in which people showed their resilience and humanity. “The two events have both hit close. I want to focus on those connections, that love of community in ways I can uplift and celebrate the legacies they left.”
The altar is adorned with a model of the 150-year-old banyan tree that burned in the August Maui fire that killed 97 people and destroyed the town of Lahaina. Atop the altar, the tree contains the names of victims written on strips of paper acting as branches. Since the fire, the tree is returning to life, a sign of hope.
But she also called the two events and other mass shootings, as well as the Israel-Hamas war, tragedies adding to the toll of death and destruction in 2023. “What we are experiencing is so unnecessary,” she said. “In a world of mass destruction, we need to be cognizant of each other and our humanity.”
One way is by creating shrines to lost loved ones.
One altar was dedicated to people who passed without having had a chance to say goodbye, wrote artist Monica Perez. It had no photos, just some flowers, a quilt, clay pots and baskets with vegetables.
Another, “Mi Familia,” paid tribute to local soldiers who died fighting in the Vietnam War, including Ernest Abeyta, who was 19 and a graduate of Lincoln High School in the East Los Angeles area. “The rest all came back; some carried their war images to their grave,” read the inscription.
Those who visit altars also can participate in a different kind of cathartic experience, said Belinda Kizy, who was refreshing the yellow marigolds called cempasuchil, or flor de muerto, on an altar honoring favorite pets that died, called “Crossing Over the Rainbow Bridge” and sponsored by the German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County.
According to the folklore, the spirits are drawn to the altars by the scent of those flowers. They can visit the humans but only until midnight on Nov. 2, when the spirits must return. “They (cempasuchil) open the gateway to the afterlife and guide them to the living,” said Cristian DePaz, who was giving a tour of the altars to a group on Monday.
At the pet altar, many left messages and pictures of their beloved animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, and even a ferret.
Lucia, 5, wrote a note to her first pet, a goldfish named Mr. Fish, who died a few years ago. With the help of her father, Brian Olney, they tacked the message she dictated onto the altar that read: “Dear Mr. Fish. I miss you and I love you.”
“It was my daughter’s first experience with death and loss and it was very difficult for her,” Olney recalled. “This altar allowed her to leave a note to her fish on a remembrance heart.”