Around Town

Translating ‘Dia de los Muertos’

Upcoming Holiday Highlights a Rich Latino Tradition
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Altars like this one are typically set up for “Dia de los Muertos,’’ the “Day of the Dead’’ in Latino culture. Celebrants leave photos and mementos to remember their deceased loved ones with joy and humor, and enjoy a brief reunion. Photos courtesy of Vecinos

I WAS one of those people who knew Dia de los Muertos was different than Halloween, but didn’t know how different.

Count me as someone who now has been educated by Vecinos de South Pasadena — the group that has been showcasing Latino culture to the community for the past 15 years.

The two holidays may be close on the calendar, but they are different in intent. Halloween is now a fun holiday pantomiming fright and terror. Dia de los Muertos is a celebration, too, but, at its core, it is a joyous celebration of remembrance.

I didn’t realize just how much Dia de los Muertos was a reflection on those friends and relatives who had died.

The holiday actually is celebrated over several days depending on the nation — with some countries and parts of Mexico starting on Oct. 31. Infants and children who have died are remembered on Nov. 1, and on Nov. 2 the souls of adults who have departed are celebrated.

The Vecinos — meaning “neighbors” in Spanish — was started to educate and promote Latino culture, arts and music in South Pasadena. Its goal is also to fund scholarships and promote education.

These two goals are reflected in this year’s Dia de los Muertos dinner-dance, Nov. 2 at the War Memorial Building. Money raised will help the group’s scholarship fund, while a large altar — a tradition during this holiday — will be set up where people can leave photos and mementos to remember their loved ones.

Abelardo de la Pena, director of marketing and communications at the L.A. Plaza de Cultura y Artes and a resident of South Pasadena, believes the Vecinos have hit on a perfect way to celebrate the holiday.

“It is for raising money for education, which is why many people came here in the first place,’’ he said. “It also brings Mexican culture to the forefront of South Pasadena.’’

Last year’s Dia de los Muertos dinner dance in South Pas.

Janna Philpot, Vecinos president, explained that on the Day of the Dead, families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives with joy and humor to enjoy a brief reunion — while recognizing death as a natural part of the human cycle.

People go to the graves of their loved ones and leave remembrances of what those people might have enjoyed in life — whether it be a favorite food or drink, photographs or comfort items for the spirits as they go on their journey to what was called in pre-Hispanic days a final resting place — “Mictian.’’

Many people build small altars in their homes or at gravesites to host the gifts. Marigolds are left in hopes that the sweet fragrance of the flower will draw in the spirits.

The holiday looks back and reflects on the past, and also asks people the question of how they want to be remembered when they die.

“It is very different than Halloween,’’ Philpot said. “It is a time to look at my life. What kind of life do I want to make and what kind of legacy do I want to leave?’’

De la Pena said the holiday also speaks to younger people.

“It connects them to their parents’ culture,’’ he said. “It is a ritual that they might not understand, but it brings pride. People are less afraid of passing over. Our belief is that they continue as part of the family.

“As long as we remember them, they will live on.’’

On the other hand, what do we remember about Halloween except maybe that the kids in my neighborhood like Kit Kats or mini-Milky Ways?

Both Halloween and the Day of the Dead have ancient origins. Halloween grew out of a New Year’s celebration by the Celts in Ireland more than 2,000 years ago, when spirits were supposed to return to the earth. The start of the Day of the Dead can be traced back thousands of years to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Dia de los Muertos has firm roots in other countries besides Mexico, including the Philippines, Guatemala, Brazil and Ecuador. There are even Dia de Muertos celebrations now in Australia and New Zealand.

It has grown even larger in the American national conscience since the Disney movie “Coco.” Now, even Disneyland is celebrating the holiday in a super-sized way with festivities until Nov. 3.

Disneyland employees bring their own gifts, photos and letters on a wall of memories set up in what the park is calling a Plaza de la Familias. Jesse Pasillas told the Disney Line Resort magazine that dangerous conditions have prevented him from traveling to his hometown in Mexico. He wrote a note to them on the wall of memories.

“I was never given the chance to tell my grandparents that I loved them,’’ Pasillas said. “That small gesture of writing a note for them touches my heart.’’

But what’s a Disney movie, or a Dia de los Muertos holiday, without merchandising? Disney is offering for sale stylized sugar skulls on T-shirts and a headband and a mouse hat with “Dia de’’ on one ear, “los Muertos” on the other ear and a colorful skull on top.

“Now there are a lot of Day of the Dead things,’’ Philpot said. “It is becoming a booming business.’’

De la Pena said the fact that the holiday has become more visible is not necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s spreading the culture,’’ he said.

Spreading the culture is what the Vecinos are all about. Philpot believes that ethos is more important now than ever before. Her interest at first was her desire to share her culture — her parents were from Mexico and she was born here — with her three sons. She said the election of 2016 made her want more than ever to be part of an organization that showcases culture and tradition of the Latino population, which is about 20 percent of the city.

“I feel in some ways, the Latino culture has been thrown under the bus,’’ she said. “I want our culture to shine in a positive light. I want that light to eclipse the statements and attitudes that have been made.’’

Still, Philpot noted that Vecinos is not about politics. There are other venues for that, she said, adding, “This is a nice way to bring us all together.”

The Vecinos partner with various groups around town and you don’t have to be Latino to join. There are Armenians, Asians and Italians who are all members.

“We have it all,’’ Philpot said. “We are woven into the fabric of what South Pasadena is about.’’

The Day of the Dead Scholarship fundraising gala is Nov. 2 at the War Memorial Building from 6-10 p.m. Tickets, at $65 apiece, are available at

My email is Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.

Andy Lippman

A former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Associated Press, Lippman writes weekly about some South Pasadena person, business, issue or trend.

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