Oakland in 2022 is a town with many problems, and a very high murder rate (There were 107 murdered people between January 1 and October 30, 2022). Nevertheless, it is also a resilient city, and its diverse communities celebrate their cultures in spite of difficult circumstances. One of those yearly events is the Mexican “Dia de los Muertos,” celebrated in the Fruitvale District of Oakland at the end of October.
The holiday originated in Mexico, where it is mostly observed. It is also a major holiday in places where people of Mexican heritage live, which is the case in many towns in California. Oakland has a population of 430,000, and roughly 27% are Hispanic. Therefore, the holiday draws over 100,000 people into the Fruitvale District.
As the name indicates, the Dia de los Muertos is a day to remember the deceased. Variations of this holiday exist in many cultures. The Mexican version of the day of remembrance is unique, because it is less solemn and it is conducted as a holiday of joyful celebration rather than mourning. It blends a little bit with Halloween, because people dress up in costumes that sometimes symbolize darkness, death, and horror. The holiday also brings family and friends together to pay respects and to remember those who have died.
It is customary to display skulls (“calavera“) and build elaborate home altars (ofrendas), and decorate them with orange and yellow marigold flowers known as cempazúchitl. These altars have pictures, as well as the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. The celebration is not solely focused on the dead, as it is also common to give gifts to friends.
There are many food stands, elaborate dance shows, and vendors of all kinds. It is a family event with kids, music bands, and soccer tournaments. Pre-Hispanic native American Culture is on display with colorful costumes, accompanied by drums and circle dancing. For one Sunday afternoon, this working-class part of Oakland becomes a joyful place, and the deadness is lifting.