November 2, 2001

Oaxacan Community Brings Life To Oceanside On Día de los Muertos

By Yvette tenBerge

The air in the Oceanside Museum of Art, located at 704 Pier View Way, is filled with the potent scent of marigolds and chrysanthemums.  Three members of the Camacena family clip bundles of the golden and snow-colored flowers that soak in buckets before them and carefully tie them to the bamboo rods that are stretched into the shape of an arch. They converse quietly in Mixteca, one of the two Indian languages still spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, and stand back intermittently to judge their work.

While most children are out trick-or-treating this Halloween, the Camacena family, along with dozens of other members of Oceanside's Oaxacan community, are, instead, spending the evening setting up ofrendas, or offerings set up on altars, to mark the beginning of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

Sponsored by Main Street Oceanside, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to promote the downtown area, this first-ever area festival aims to celebrate the culture shared by the what is estimated to be as many as 25,000 Oaxacans in the North County area, alone, as well as to educate and bring together other members of this very diverse community.

Rocio Cervantes ties marigolds to bamboo rods.

Ted Garrett, Executive Director of Main Street Oceanside, is one of the community members who has followed and supported the celebration since the idea of it began to take shape almost one year ago. He has had the task of responding to the festival's critics, three of whom have written angry letters denouncing the celebration. He shakes his head at people who mistakenly label Día de los Muertos as a celebration solely for Mexican and Mexican-American communities.

"Throughout centuries people of all cultures have developed events or celebrations around death. This happens to be a rather flavorful event, a happy celebration of life and of ones ancestors," says Mr. Garrett, who grins widely as people file into Main Street Oceanside's offices, their hands filled with bundles of flowers and bags of fruit.  "This is a major fall event that is designed to do something for everyone."

Día de los Muertos is a traditional, pre-Colombian holiday believed to have originated in Mexico more than 3,000 years ago. It is a day or series of days in which people honor their departed loved ones and celebrate the triumph of life. It is thought that, on these days, the deceased are given divine consent to visit with their friends and relatives on earth. Therefore, beginning in mid-October each year, children and adults prepare to welcome the souls of their dead relatives who will be returning home to make sure that all is well and that they have not been forgotten.

Erasto Camacena ties bundles of flowers to the ofrenda at Oceanside Museum of Art.

During this celebration, family and friends set up altars at their homes, gravesites or business establishments. They decorate these ofrendas with yellow or orange marigolds known as Zempasuchitl, the traditional pre-Colombian flower of the dead, and with the deceased's favorite things. Some of these items include fruit, specially baked bread, sugar skulls, chocolate, pictures of La Virgin de Guadalupe and other saints, photographs of the deceased person and candles.

Although 5,600 flowers for these altars were donated by two Oceanside businesses, the cost to put on this four-day celebration will be roughly $20,000. Local Oaxacan families banded together to create altars that now decorate the windows of eight local businesses. These families prepared and provided the food and supplied pictures and mementos for the altars.

On Thursday, November 1, Oaxacan families will complete their altars and construct a special ofrenda dedicated to the September 11 victims of the terrorist attacks. This altar will be erected at Oceanside Beach Photo at 312 Mission Avenue. A mass at St. Mary's by the Sea will be held on Friday at 6:00 p.m., followed by a candlelight procession through downtown to view each of the altars. On Saturday, an educational program will inform visitors about the history and significance of Día de los Muertos and the film, "Las Ofrendas: Days of the Dead" will be shown. The final day of the event, Sunday, November 4, will consist of a multi-cultural music festival, food, dancing and art for children.

Skip Pahl, Director of the Oceanside Museum of Art, watches the Camacena family as they transform a brown fold-out table and three large pieces of cardboard into a brilliantly colored ofrenda that is bursting with fresh-cut flowers and sweet smelling fruit. "I am so happy that this museum will play a part in helping to celebrate the cultural diversity and treasures in this community," says Mr. Pahl, who explains that the Oaxacan community first began migrating to Oceanside to work in agriculture as early as the 1920s.

(Left to Right) Lu Delucy and Rick Wright, owners of ceaside Beach Photo, stand in from of an alter to honor the victims of the September 11 tragedy.

Erasto Camacena, 48, finishes tying a bundle of marigolds to the top of the arch before pausing to sum up the importance of celebrating Día de los Muertos. "We have faith that the souls of the dead come back to visit us each year. Like the monarch butterfly, they return to the same place as part of the cycle that is life," says Mr. Camacena, a local curandero, or medicine man, who agreed to build his ofrenda in the museum window instead of in his home. "This is why it is so important for us to celebrate this special day."

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