For almost two decades, Santa Ana has been the epicenter of the largest Dia de los Muertos events in Orange County.

It’s usually one of the largest free events to commemorate the dead across Southern California. 

But this year, the events were smaller.

This past weekend, two main events connected local residents together, to a world where COVID-19 still very much still exists and grieving is a common sentiment. 

Orange County’s Latino community has been hit the hardest by the pandemic with 44% of the overall virus cases and 38% of deaths, according to data from the OC Health Care Agency.

“Many of us are grieving the lives lost to Covid, Covid is still here,” said Marlha Sanchez of Unidos Homeschool Cooperative, “we have children that lost grandparents, and the children are still distraught. We wanted to provide a creative outlet for them to create altars in memory of their family members.” 

This year, Orange County Health Care Agency officials put out a Tweet that seemingly warned against large gatherings but also didn’t discourage them. 

“For Día de Los Muertos, the community is encouraged to celebrate only with members of your household or online,” reads a Oct. 30 Tweet sent out by the Orange County Health Care Agency. 

On Saturday, two different events were held in Santa Ana.

One community group, El Centro Cultural de México, got people together around their community center’s parking lot. Another host of organizers, with Viva la Vida, held commemorations amidst the hustle and bustle of downtown Santa Ana. 

Both events were half a mile away from each other, but both were significantly smaller in size than past celebrations. 

El Centro Cultural held their yearly “Noche de Altares,” in their community center parking lot, while “Viva la Vida” held their event between Fourth St. and Birch St. in Downtown Santa Ana. 

El Centro Cultural hosted 17 altares, two food vendors and three artisanal pop-ups, while Viva la Vida had 55 altars and 30 vendors. 

Both organizers had COVID-19 precautions on their mind. 

“Usually we plan for this event for six months in advance but we did this in a month and a half because we waited until the last minute considering that there are enough events downtown already for us to start doing events again. We were kinda hesitant,” said Rudy Cordova, organizer of Viva la Vida.  

Mother Jennifer Ayroso takes her son Ben Ayroso,9, to receive his first vaccine at the pop up vaccine clinic at El Centro Cultural.
A volunteer dressed as a vaccine from community group, Latino Health Access, dances with the public at Viva la Vida. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Both events had vaccination clinics and were community focused: making altars for victims of police brutality, unidentified indigenous children found in unmarked graves, homeless deaths, cyclists, passing through a natural death or lives taken by COVID-19.

“Even though this year, this is small, I am glad we made it happen,” said Benjamin Vasquez, the organizer of Noche De Altares, “we wanted to be able to remember all the ones we lost and bring the community and families together.”

Attendees at “Viva la Vida” in downtown Santa Ana on Oct. 6, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Middle, Ramon Castellon speaks to curious passersby about his family and shows photos he printed for the event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Dia de los Muertos, spiritual in nature, allows living family members to talk about their deceased family members and the legacies they left behind.

“My altar is to show that they aren’t dead, they are in a stagnant place to be lifted to heaven. It’s the day of the souls, we must not forget that.”

Ramon Castellon of Santa Ana

Indigenous communities were also present grieving the families lost to COVID-19 over the U.S. border and memorializing family members. 

It’s complex subject matter for undocumented communities, who at times miss the funerals of their loved ones fearing not being able to come back. 

“We make this offering to all of our loved ones while preserving our roots,” said Rosa From Monarchas Purepecha, a community group dedicated to preserving the cultural norms of the Purepecha from Michoacan. 

The night ended with fog slowly covering the streets of Santa Ana, and songs were sung to the offerings by family members while candles slowly were put out one by one. 

Here’s a few more visuals that caught my eye.

Zellah Sanchez, 9, sits on the floor decorating an altar dedicated to cyclists who have been killed while riding. The altar also included housing statistics and information geared to inform attendees of the recent successful developments of rent control in Santa Ana. “We had the sign that says eviction=death to signal to the fact that for some really vulnerable people an eviction can cause death. Particularly during the pandemic when the one tool we had to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was to “shelter in place,” said Mextli Lopez, an activist with Tenants United Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Left to right, Gloria Covarubios and Juanita Zamora, wear typical indigenous garments worn by the Purepecha in Michoacán. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
An altar dedicated to the lives lost to cyclists by community members. “We wanted to honor bicyclists and pedestrians who died on Santa Ana streets. It’s been a problem for years and it continues to be a problem. Just yesterday, 41-year-old Arturo Quevado died on Fairview Street. Walking and biking is a legitimate way to move, that should be respected and shouldn’t ever lead to the loss of someone’s life,“said Kris Fortin from Santa Ana Active Streets. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Viva la Vida in downtown Santa Ana on Oct. 6, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Chicanos Unidos decorate an altar for Genevieve Huizar, an activist who actively spoke out against police brutality. Huizar passed to coronavirus last year. Her son was fatally shot by Anaheim police in 2012. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
An altar remembers children who have died in custody while being detained by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Estrella Diaz spreads her butterfly wings during Noche de Altares in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Community members, activists, and residents come together to decorate altars for Dia de los Muertos in Santa Ana on Nov.6, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Transforming Justice OC decorates an altar with list of names of persons who died while in jail custody. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
An altar decorator holds freshly cut cempasúchil, ready to use for his altar dedicated to the Mexican State of Guerrero. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Family members set an altar dedicated to their daughter Amy who passed away due to cancer. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
A family sings in unison while facing an altar at Viva la Vida in downtown Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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