Despite the ongoing streetcar construction in downtown Santa Ana, papel picado waved high over 4th street and N. Flower Street this weekend, with thousands walking the streets to pay respects to their loved ones at the annual Día de Los Muertos celebration.

An altar dedicated to the Romero family on 4th street, next to some of the multiple construction projects occurring in and around in downtown Santa Ana on Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Songs, photos and food offerings were presented to invite the spirits of those that have passed through the creation of altares, or altars, to honor the individual or family.

While approximately 76% of Santa Ana’s residents identify as Latino, the city of Santa Ana does not sponsor any Day of the Dead events or celebrations.

Paul Eakins, Public Information Officer for Santa Ana, stated that “the city of Santa Ana isn’t involved in these [celebrations] and we do not have a city-produced Day of the Dead event.” 

In place of the city, community-based organizations like El Centro de Cultural de Mexico and Viva La Vida Santa Ana have stepped up in recent years to honor Latino culture in Santa Ana by producing Day of the Dead celebrations. 

Day of the Dead, or Día de Los Muertos, is a celebration that honors and remembers the dead, through the practice of setting up altares, or altars, for loved ones that have passed. The celebration has origins in Mexico, specifically within an Aztec ritual honoring the dead and the harvest season known as Miccaihuitl, according to Michelle Téllez, associate professor in the Department of Mexican American Studies in the University of Arizona. The celebration is typically observed on November 1 and 2, although celebrations permeate through the first two weeks of the month.

Community-based organizations like El Centro and Viva La Vida are integral in the preservation of Latino culture in Orange County. 

With increased gentrification in traditionally-Latino neighborhoods in parts of Santa Ana, these organizations are focused on educating the next generation to carry on cultural traditions and celebrate Mexican indigeneity through events like Dia de Los Muertos. 

“It is important to continue with this celebration to represent our identity, at this moment in time where gentrification is taking place in some of our communities,” said Wendy Bahena, a community organizer for El Centro.

Founded in 1994, El Centro has been organizing Noche de Altares, an event observing Day of the Dead, in Santa Ana since 2002, which marks this years celebration as their 20th anniversary. 

“Noche de Altares and the Día de Los Muertos festival is the pride of Santa Ana,” Benjamin Vazquez, former board chair at El Centro said, “It is something to rally around and bring people together, culturally, politically, and socially.”

Vazquez, who is running for city council this November, has been a volunteer at El Centro for 15 years, and did not begin celebrating the holiday with his family until he started organizing it alongside the nonprofit. 

Another community-based nonprofit organization, Viva la Vida Santa Ana, held their celebration on 4th street this year. Founded in 2015, the nonprofit aims to “shine a light” on Hispanic culture in Santa Ana by providing “a free, family-friendly community-focused space to celebrate” Day of the Dead.

Voice of OC reached out to Viva La Vida organizers and received no comment. 

The celebration through Viva la Vida opened with a traditional indigenous dance to bless the altares on 4th street in Downtown Santa Ana. 

Ba’ac Garcia, 19, blesses the altars on 4th street through an indigenous dance on Nov. 5th, 2022. Garcia is of the Papago peoples, native to Southern Arizona. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

The Romero’s are one such family that continues to uphold cultural traditions through Viva La Vida. Their family has been present at Dia de Los Muertos celebrations in Santa Ana for about 8 years, having spent over $1,000+ on their family’s altar, according to Ana Romero, 38. 

“Dia de los Muertos is about remembering our loved ones, and celebrating their lives.” Romero said, “It is a spiritual thing.”

A mother and child in front of the Romero family altar on 4th street on Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

The celebration at Noche de Altares included altares representing every state in Mexico, among 100 other altares dedicated to political causes and individual families.

An altar dedicated to Veracruz on N. Flower St., on Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Isidro Peréz García and his partner Adriana Sánchez Alexander dedicated their altar, titled La Calavera del Inmigrante, or “The Skull of the Immigrant,” to lives lost at the border.

An altar dedicated to immigrant lives lost on the US-Mexico border on Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: Erika Taylor, Voice of OC.

“This altar is dedicated to the immigrants that come from Mexico, and that cross the border, and the ones that die trying, or are left in the desert. This is a dedication to that journey,” Peréz García said, “Santa Ana is a place that has a lot of immigrants, and it reflects my own experience as an immigrant.” 

Peréz García migrated to the US from Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico at 9 years old. “I’ve been here for a long time,” he said. “Sometimes when we cross, we forget about our traditions. Santa Ana – it’s really cool that they’re doing this – to continue our traditions in some way.”

Peréz García’s altar dedicated to immigrant lives lost on the US-Mexico border on Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: Erika Taylor, Voice of OC.
Isidro Peréz García (left) and his partner Adriana Sánchez Alexander (right) standing with their altar on N. Flower St. on Nov. 5, 2022. They spent an estimated $150 creating the altar. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

The celebration on 4th street also included altares dedicated to lives lost at the United States-Mexico border.

An altar dedicated to the lives lost at the US-Mexico border on 4th street on Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

An altar dedicated to the lives lost at the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, was also included amongst the altares on N. Flower Street.

An altar made by Franklin Elementary School on Nov. 5, 2022, dedicated to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Personal altars were also assembled on N. Flower Street with Noche de Altares. One altar, dedicated to Chalchiu, the captain for the Danza Mesoamericana dance group, who passed away recently.  Danza Mesoamericana is an indigenous dance that uses storytelling to practice spiritual and religious rituals, native to Mesoamerica and Mexico.

The altar dedicated to Chalchiu, the head of the Aztec dance group through El Centro. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

“I am Nahua, an indigenous community in Mexico,” Ivette Xochiyotl, a member of the dance group said, “Dia de Los Muertos today is the merging of indigenous culture and Catholicism. But if you ask me personally, where I am from with my people, it is a celebration of life. It is very different from what you see today.”

Noche de Altares was moved from its original location on 4th street to N. Flower St. due to the presence of the newly-added trolley. “The area provided to us by the city was way too small,” Vazquez said, “We have been in talks with the city since March, and they said we couldn’t use 4th street with the trolley. We needed more space for the number of altars – over 100 altars – with families pouring their hearts out in the street to strangers and presenting it in a special way.”

Noche de Altares is different from other Día de Los Muertos because it is “a community made by the community, for the community,” said Bahena, “Noche de Altares gives us a great way to represent our roots and our traditions.”

“We have a saying at El Centro: When the culture dies, the people die. We want to be able to tell our own stories, and create our own identities that are positive and beautiful. It is very necessary not to just be tolerated, but to celebrate. We want to celebrate who we are,” Vazquez said. 

Obed Flores poses on Fourth Street at Viva La Vida in Santa Ana Calif. on Saturday Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: Zia Bella Blair
A crowd gathered around the Aztec dancers at Noche de Altares on Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.
The crowd gathered at the stage, which held live performances throughout the day, at Noche de Altares on Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

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