This guide was updated on October 31, 2018 to reflect current dates and events.
Since Halloween falls on the last day of October, we spend all month celebrating it. Halloween, of course, began as All Hallows Eve, the day before All Hallows Day or, as the Christians know it, All Saints Day. The holiday shares a common history with the three-day Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead – when we honor and remember our ancestors who have passed. Sometime in the 20th century, those two interrelated holidays grew apart, thanks to an over-commercialization of candy and costumes and the Hollywoodification of death and the spirit world as “horror.”
Most of our Día de los Muertos celebrations have managed to retain their reverence for those on the other side, offering items including candy – in this case, usually calaveras (sugar skulls) – as gifts and offerings rather than tricks and treats. Given our proximity to Mexico and our history as Alta California under Mexican rule, we’ve been able to carry on the tradition of flowers and cakes and altars -- and, of course, lots of calacas (skeletons) – right here in southern California.
Whether it’s among the tombstones, in a traditional Mexican-American neighborhood, or at a cultural institution, here are the five best places in southern California to explore the ofrendas, pan de muerto, and cempasúchitl (marigolds) of this ancestral celebration.
1. Self Help Graphics & Art, Boyle Heights - Fri. Nov. 2
Perhaps the oldest Day of the Dead commemoration in the country (45 years and counting), Día de los Muertos at Self Help Graphics is also one of the largest… and longest! Involving over 50 community organizations, and attended by 10,000 people of all ages, this unique program extends into an entire season of activities that run from August to November. On November 2, the celebration kicks off at 5:00 p.m. with a procession from Mariachi Plaza to the event grounds at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School (just across the street from Self Help Graphics), where you’ll witness a traditional ceremonial blessing and be able to view an accompanying exhibition that’s part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative. The Boyle Heights neighborhood is a perfect destination for this traditional Mexican celebration, as the enclave is one of the most closely associated with a contemporary Mexican and Mexican-American population. Whichever meals are being offered at the event – or at restaurants in the surrounding area – you’re bound to get some good eats, so come hungry. Dress in your best calaca attire, and hop on the Metro, as limited parking is available at the event site for a fee.
2. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, San Diego - Thurs Nov. 1 - Sun. Nov. 4
Considered by some as “the birthplace of California,” Old Town was, indeed, the Golden State’s first non-native settlement, founded in 1769 with the establishment of a mission and a fort. At its center is the state historic park, which provides living history programs that focus on the Mexican and American period between 1821 and 1872. From November 1 and 4, you can see Día de los Muertos altar setups – both traditional and modern – on a self-guided or guided tour throughout several of the surrounding buildings and museums in the historic district, as well as the park’s annual “chalk graveyard.” Most of the activity, however, will be happening on Saturday, November 3 – with performances of a Día de los Muertos-themed theatrical play, mariachi music and folklórico dancing. Budding genealogists can also look up their ancestors at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site. Look for life-sized dolls of La Catrina all dressed up for the event, as well as giant skeleton puppets and a stilt walker who also happens to be a skeleton. Many of the local restaurants are offering special programming and/or food and drink specials as well. Free parking, or take the Trolley.
3. Bowers Museum, Santa Ana - Sun. Nov. 4
One of the most intriguing and well-curated cultural institutions of Orange County is the Bowers Museum, whose vision is to celebrate world cultures through their artistic traditions. Two years since its “Mummies of the World” exhibit closed, it’s time to return to Bowers for more contemplation of the dearly departed with family-friendly art projects, a mariachi concert, and traditional dance performances. Even better, the festival is free and includes a ticket to both the main museum – which could run you as much as $15 for a weekend visit – and the neighboring Kidseum for all Santa Ana residents.
4. Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica - Sun. Nov. 4
Head on over to the free celebration (now in its seventh year) at Woodlawn Cemetery, one of Santa Monica’s most important historical resources, which has been serving the community for over a century. Visit the headstones of such Southern California luminaries as Leo Carrillo and Abbot Kinney and peruse the community memory wall (or add to it). Just don’t walk on the graves! Free parking at Santa Monica College with a free shuttle provided (and free bike valet).
5. Conejo Mountain Funeral Home, Memorial Park & Crematory, Camarillo - Sat. Nov. 3
This free, all-day affair is a great way to experience the cultural customs of the Mixteco-Oaxaca communities of Mexico in particular, with all the traditional Mexican spiritual practices — including a procession around the cemetery grounds at 5:00 p.m. Since each altar is customized for the deceased loved one — including personal photos and offerings that they would have preferred — this is no cookie-cutter event. Located within the bounds of the former Rancho Calleguas Mexican land grant, it’s the largest in Ventura County — and now in its eleventh year.
Top Image: Costumed Calaca Sugar Skull attendees at the Hollywood Forever's Dia De Los Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever on October 28, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images)