Go. Do. – Dia De Los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

This year, I found myself without anything to do on November 2, Day of the Dead, (or All Soul’s Day). I have been itching to go out with my camera recently and was presented with a perfect opportunity to go to the 14th annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I won’t go into the meaning or history of Dia de los Muertos. There are other sites that explain it far more eloquently than I can. I’ll just say that for a very long time, we have had an altar in our home that contains pictures of those we have lost, both friends and family. The other items we have chosen to place there (calacas, calaveras, skulls, and artwork) are specific to the Latin celebration; even though neither of us have any Latin blood. While many cultures commemorate the holiday, the Latin cultures seem to have mastered the art of making it an actual celebration; a warm, welcoming of spirits that has long resonated with me.

We live about 25 minutes away, so I gave myself some time. After taking care of a few errands, I headed to Hollywood in earnest. An hour later, I was still sitting in traffic; having exited the freeway. The parking structures are full; there is no parking available on the streets and traffic is at a standstill. I circled the area, in vain, for another 30 minutes. My patience evaporated after nearly two hours in the car and I angrily decided that it just wasn’t worth it. Trying to salvage what was left of the evening, I headed to Amoeba Music on Sunset. For those who have never been to Amoeba, it’s a gigantic record store with albums, cd’s DVD/Blu-Rays, and all sorts of other goodies; pretty much the equivalent of church for me. It attracts all walks of life, which just adds to the overall awesome-ness of it.

Their structure was also full (argh), as was the flat lot (note to self – stay the *F* away from Hollywood on Saturday nights for the rest of your life). Frustrated and feeling thwarted at every turn I park next door at the Arclight Theater and walk across the street to Amoeba. The minute I crossed the threshold, I could feel my anger slipping away. Amoeba was full of people but I didn’t mind. Everyone was there because they love music; so the fact that it was crowded didn’t matter. The Best of Talking Heads was playing loudly, and one of my favorite songs of theirs (“Found A Job”) had just started, brightening my mood considerably.

I walked up and down the aisles with no plans; killing time and cooling off before I went home. I picked up one CD, then another, then…well, I might as well get a basket. Then another and another, until an hour later I had 21 CD’s. Some from bands I like, some from artists I’ve never heard off, and a lot of clearance holiday CD’s (it’s an addiction, perhaps a story for another time…). Happy with my lot, I headed to the register. Cheerful, multiple-piercings, blond-girl rang me up, took my cash, and wished me a super evening. I thought, “well, it IS starting to turn around…”

Back in my car, heading down Cahuenga at about 9:30 to make a left onto Melrose, against my better judgement I decided to swing by one of the structures that was closed earlier. What’s this? It’s open? I pay, I park, I walk up the block to Hollywood Forever. Super-short ticket line and I’m in.

Festively dressed revelers.
Festively dressed revelers.

I was not fully prepared for how incredible it was. It occurred to me that I was encountering a similar situation twice in one evening. Even though the event was full of people; they were all people who were there to celebrate; not necessarily to “party”, though it certainly was that. It was the oddest mix of celebratory, live-and-let-live, and chill-out vibes I think I’ve ever seen. There were so many people dressed up in elaborate costumes with their faces painted magnificently. The creativity and ingenuity that went into the headdresses and floral accents was just breathtakingly beautiful.

A family of those who have passed gather for dinner.
A family of those who have passed gather for dinner.

Many families and friends get together and build altars. These range from simple and thoughtful to elaborate structures. There were altars that included dining room tables like the photo above. Each place setting featured a photo of the deceased, a plate of their favorite food, a calavera effigy dressed in their clothing, and on the back of each chair was a biography of the deceased. Another altar featured a long-wedded couple and their bed. Each altar was softly illuminated with the glow of candlelight (quite a lot, in fact)  which, even though artificial, imparted an ethereal beauty to the grounds.

An altar for a wedded couple.
An altar for a wedded couple.

Everywhere I turned there were more creative and interesting costumes. Rows and rows of tents contained Dia de los Muertos arts and crafts (I picked up a small, black, carved skull for our altar at home), as well as delicious savory and sweet treats. I lost count of the number of face-painting booths! Numerous bands played on various stages throughout the grounds.

Festively dressed revelers.
More festively dressed revelers.

And many altars.

A woman carefully tends to her altar.
A woman carefully tends to her altar.
Altar detail.
Altar detail.
Detail of a calaca at Bob Guccione's grave.
Detail of a calavera at Bob Guccione’s grave.

There were two altars that got to me. The first, shown below, was fabricated of multiple cards. The cards were strung on twine between posts, in multiple rows. Suspended from the posts were white Christmas lights. Each of the cards represented someone whose death was a hate-related crime; and contained a sentiment from family or friends, wishing the deceased well. There were hundreds of cards. To see so many was overwhelming and deeply affecting.

Cards in memory of those who have dies from hate-related crimes.
Cards in memory of those who have died from hate-related crimes.

One of the last stops I made was at the altar pictured below. It was tucked into a quiet corner of a mausoleum. The woman tending to it was engaged in conversation as I approached. I knelt down, snapped the photo below and stood up. She approached me, “Are you a pro”? I told her no, that I was just there to celebrate and pay my respects. She was there for her son; a 13 year old boy, who died 13 years ago. His altar featured several photos (you can see him on his skateboard in the left of the pic), many candles, and flowers set on a plank that was stretched across two old, wooden chairs. I saw many beautiful altars that night but this one, in it’s simplicity, affected me deeply. I didn’t ask about the details and she didn’t offer. We talked for ten minutes; mostly about the holiday itself, how wonderful the crowd was, what a “Peace Full” night it was; and how it’s important to celebrate those who have passed. We wished each other a wonderful evening.

Altar to a mother's 13 year old son.
Altar to a mother’s 13 year old son.

Maybe it’s because I have a nephew who just turned 14 or maybe it’s because I’ve been involved with three shows this year that all involved Matthew Shepard. Regardless, all I could think of as I was walking away were the words of Judy Shepard in The Laramie Project, “Go home, hug your kids, and don’t let a day go by without telling them how much you love them”.

A few minutes before midnight, walking toward the exit, I could hear one of the bands playing their last song. Out of the night sky, floating on a cool November breeze, were the words of John Lennon.

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…”

I’m so incredibly thrilled that I made myself go back that evening after it had gotten off to such a crappy start. It reminded me of a very simple lesson – sometimes we need to deal with a little B.S. and unrelated garbage to get to something magical. I was heading home. I was done. And something told me to try again. I’m grateful for that voice, from wherever it came. There’s something powerful in resolving to try once more – no matter what the challenge, large or small.

Sometimes we need to be pushed to go and do.