I didn't grow up in Los Angeles; and although I have Latin American family, we are not of the Mexican or Guatemalan variety - meaning I arrived in SoCal knowing next to nothing about Day of the Dead. I've gradually pieced together the whole fascinating cultural and historical puzzle, discovering how many Halloween traditions we actually owe to the Native Americans who were in the city of angels before us, before the Spanish, before Christianity. El Día de los Muertos is a rare opportunity to understand several layers of angeleno culture, while celebrating something that looks a heck of a lot like Halloween.
While LA offers many Day of the Dead celebrations, the most authentic may be the novenarios, the nine nights of revelry leading up to November 2. Many Spanish-speaking countries have novenarios leading up to Christmas, but there is a similar build-up to the Day of the Dead, and here in LA it is most celebrated, not surprisingly, on Olvera Street. I've been curious to check out this traditional celebration for years, but between ghost trains and haunted houses our last week of October has always been booked solid. Not to mention that whole parking downtown thing. This year I finally decided to take the sugar skull by the horns and go see what it's all about. Curious?
To be honest, I was expecting something more elaborate than we found, but once I adjusted my eyes, I was delighted by its lack of hyperbole, in a week of all-out Halloween assault on the senses. The novenarios are about ancient ritual, and we and our friends felt honored to be part of the proceedings. In the 45 minutes or so leading up to the 7pm procession, a symbolic Native American cleansing ceremony is offered at the center of Olvera Street, with people in traditional dress burning herbs and scattering marigold petals while saying a blessing over anyone willing to stand in line for the experience. People with and without calaca (ornate skeleton) painted faces line up to participate; onlookers are asked not to take photos of this portion of the ceremony.
Those without face paint can get their faces sorted out on Olvera Street, by the way, by arriving early and spending a little time with the marvelous face painters there. Or stop into one of the wonderful shops for a mask or costume; it's always a treat shopping on Olvera Street.
At 7pm or a little after, the parade begins at the midway point on Olvera Street. We assumed that we should position ourselves to catch the procession there, which we did, but in fact we would have done better to find a place to wait in the plaza, by the bandstand. The procession on Olvera Street itself, while beautiful, is brief and cramped. What follows, however, is an impressive display of native dancing in the plaza, and the people who knew to wait there had a much better view than we did.
The performers are a combination of what seem to be women and children dressed in calaca costumes (it's hard to tell behind those masks!), and men and women dressed in native headresses and regalia performing rituals that feel hauntingly ancient. The city seemed to melt away for me as I watched a ghost dance of what was here before. And yet, there was nothing scary or menacing about all of these ghosts and skeletons; we were all invited to be a part of the wonderful ancient custom of simultaneously embracing and laughing at death.
The performance was over by 8pm, at which point we turned to fulfill our plan of continuing on to a Mexican dinner on Olvera Street. Allow me to spare you the frustration we encountered: the restaurants of Olvera Street close at 7pm! You can get a take-away taco from one of the small stands, but if your dream, like mine, involves dinner on a patio with a salty margarita, you'll need to arrive early enough to pursue that dream before the novenario.
Finally, a note on the p-word. Parking is not as bad as it seems, particularly late afternoons and evenings. Olvera Street has a parking website with full info on rates and locations of the five lots closest to the action; lots 4 and 5 charge a flat rate of $5 at most times of day. Note that these lots often have no attendant on duty and expect visitors to pay by sliding bills into an honor box.
Día de los Muertos Novenarios
October 25 - November 2
Originally published October 29, 2014