In early November, Orange County residents may see an abundance of bright yellow-orange flowers sold at local florists and by the roadside.
But this year, Santa Ana is growing its own cempasúchil, or marigold flowers.
Santa Ana’s community gardens are nourishing cultural roots by growing and harvesting their own marigolds for local celebrations and altars this weekend for Día de Los Muertos, a traditional holiday across Mexico and Latin America to recognize deceased relatives.
Editor’s note: This is an occasional series where Voice of OC works with local community photographers to offer residents a first-hand look at the local sites and scenes of Orange County.
The event is particularly popular in Mexico and has also become an integral part of Southern California culture with celebrations in Santa Ana attracting tens of thousands each year.
Marigold flowers have been cultivated in Mexico for over 2,000 years, and are a central component in altars created during Day of the Dead celebrations.
According to traditional legends, the fragrance of marigolds guides the souls of loved ones from their burial place to the altar where they are being honored.
These altares are spread throughout family homes, cemeteries and other public spaces the first few days of November.
“I think there is something beautiful in the use of community gardens to grow marigolds rather than buy from the market that lends itself to the sense of ritual within Día de Los Muertos,” said Dr. Christina Ceisel, Associate Professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton.
“Bringing this practice to Santa Ana through community gardens gives the tradition continuity, but it adapts it to the people of Santa Ana,” Ceisel said.
One such community garden is located in Jerome Park.
Jerome Park Community Garden is one of five community gardens in Santa Ana, according to the city. In July of this year, the city hosted a cempasúchil workshop at the garden, and invited community members to participate.
“Many residents in Santa Ana are from Mexico, have families in Mexico, and have strong connections to their homeland and indigenous roots,” said Veronica De Vol Roach, Santa Ana Parks and Recreation Program Coordinator who oversees the city’s community gardens.
“Community gardens bring purpose, connection and intergenerational practices within a community. So growing marigolds in Santa Ana Community Gardens strengthen and continue the family traditions that many residents value,” said De Vol Roach.
There are more than 20 gardens across Orange County, according to University of California Master Gardeners of Orange County.
Cempasúchil were also planted in other urban green spaces in the city.
“In our community, there is a huge migrant population,” said Blue Leopo, co-founder of Santa Ana Seed Collective, a group of land stewards that works throughout Orange County to collect seeds and plant native flora.
“Growing these flowers is very important to our culture, especially to indigenous communities in Mexico who use these flowers to honor people that have passed,” Leopo said. “It reminds them of their homeland. I think it is important to continue to keep this tradition alive and to carry on the legacy.”
Leopo, other members of the Collective and volunteers planted cempasúchil at CRECE Urban Farm this year.
The Collective’s co-founder Angeles Marin Memije also noted that the practice has significance beyond Latino culture and Day of the Dead.
“The process is memorable for people who are not Mexican, too,” Marin Memije said of the growth and harvesting of marigolds. “They have made their mark across the world in Africa, Asia and other places. It’s beautiful to have other cultures celebrate honoring their own ancestors and dead.”
De Vol Roach echoed this sentiment.
“Marigolds also give participants the opportunity to share and exchange their traditions and culture. Marigolds are also used in Central America for Day of the Dead, and the flowers have great significance in Indian ceremonies and celebrations,” De Vol Roach said.
“Santa Ana is a diverse community, and the Santa Ana Community Gardens are a place where everyone can learn something new about their neighbors.”
Eric Velasco was the father of the movement to grow cempasúchil in Santa Ana.
“He was an elder from Oaxaca that grew in his home, and he brought his seeds to Santana,” said Abel Ruiz, who was one of Velasco’s mentees. “His vision was that marigolds should be accessible to the community.”
Ruiz noted that for a time, people would use paper flowers on their altars at Noche de Altares, and that Velasco wanted people to use real flowers.
“I remember Eric telling me ‘the seeds of the cempasúchil are the seeds of our culture, we need to grow them in Santa Ana,’” said Soccorro Sarmiento, co-founder of El Centro, where Velasco hosted the workshops. “He brought that knowledge to the community.”
Before Velasco’s death in 2017, he and Ruiz grew marigolds in an empty lot off Santa Ana Boulevard.
“The beauty of growing the flowers is that it adds an emotional aspect. It is like a ceremony that lasts for months. As you take care of the flowers, you think of the day that you are going to build the altar. Once that day comes, it’s all the more powerful,” said Ruiz.
Ruiz currently works as the project director at CRECE Urban Farms, and will be setting up an altar in his home this year to honor generations of family members.
“The cultural and spiritual significance for our community cannot be stressed enough,” Ruiz said. “Even though it has changed over the years, I think it is still a significant time to remember our past relatives and be able to honor them and keep their memory alive.”
“That is the beauty of the celebration.”