Festival of Altars celebrates life and death

The aroma of copal and incense scented the air. Flames of 8 inch glass prayer candles flickered to welcome loved ones. Petals of sunset golden Mexican marigolds rested alongside vibrant candy apple red and fuschia pink paper mache flowers. Laughter, smiles and warm embraces multiplied amongst the crowd of face-painted skeletons as hundreds of people came around the world made their way through Potrero Del Sol Park to create community altars or build their own personal one. 

The Dia de Los Muertos Festival of Altars is an event where families create altars to remember their loved ones who have died. The festival took place Nov. 2 at Potrero Del Sol Park in the Mission District.

“I’ve come every year. I grew up here and am working in nursing, I have lost a lot of loved ones so it’s nice to celebrate their lives,” said Marci Farser, SF State School of Nursing graduate. “No other cultures really remembers their loved ones the way this one does, with the music, clothing, beautiful dances.”

Dia de Los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead, is a celebration within South and Central American culture. Originating from Aztec and Mesoamerican traditions people honor the dead and celebrate life and death as one entity through the creation of altars. 

In previous years, the celebration took place at Garfield Square, but moved to 25th Street and San Bruno Avenue due to the outgrowth of the site that is currently under construction. The alcohol-free and family-friendly park overflowed with a mixture of traditional and contemporary altars consumed with photographs of loved ones.

“The celebration allows people to gain a better understanding of the holiday,” said Rosa de Anda, the Day of the Dead Festival of Altars founder and organizer, “while authentically experiencing the Latinx community and culture through remembering loved ones and the gifts ancestors leave behind.”

Weeks prior to the celebration, community organizers and members such as Day of the Dead SF with collaborative help from the Marigold Project, gathered art supplies, prayer candles, marigolds and created flowers out of tissue paper to build shrines representing the symbols and stages of life. 

“This is a way for me to connect with my roots,” said Joana Ayala, Day of the Dead SF volunteer, “I love talking to my deceased grandparents and writing them letters.” 

For many families, it was their first time celebrating and creating altars in a public space outside of the comfort of their homes. 

“This is my first time out here, and usually people place elements like water, earth, fire,” said Christina Tejeda, an attendee who created an alter with her family. “Many people will modernize it and this is nothing like how it is back in Mexico City where there are marigolds everywhere. It’s just beautiful.” 

Unlike Tejeda, many families have participated in the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos and built shrines for public display for years. Tony Ortiz, his son Mario and his family have created altars for the past nine years to remember their ancestors and share their stories with others.

“We get to acknowledge and remember them. We had a very colorful family,” said Ortiz, long-time participant in the Festival of Altars. “For others, it may seem sad, but for the majority of the time we had it’s out of love and we get to celebrate the beautiful lives they had and remember what they were like and share that with others.”