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Carnival participants celebrating the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico, carry traditional cempasuchitl flowers, known to many as calendula flowers. Courtesy photo
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Day of the Dead festivities enliven the California Center for the Arts, Escondido

ESCONDIDO — The California Center for the Arts, Escondido came alive on the Day of the Dead.

The center played host to the Día de los Muertos Festival from Nov. 1 to Nov. 3, offering a bevy of traditional holiday activities free of charge during the holiday weekend. That included a traditional ofrenda (Spanish for offering) ceremony and the ability for visitors to create altars for their loved ones who have passed away, music, food, traditional holiday face-painting and more.

Things got off the ground at the festival with a procession led by Luis Ituarte, a Pasadena, California-based artist who is part of the Escondido art collective, Public Address. That music-infused procession was led by a massive cart of cempasuchitl flowers, known to many as calendula flowers (in the marigold family).


The cempasuchitl flowers came from the hometown locale at which they have been traditionally harvested for Día de los Muertos in Rosarito, which sits in Baja California, Mexico. After the procession around the California Center for the Arts, Escondido’s art museum wing, Ituarte made a short statement, his wife and fellow Public Address member Gerda Govine read a poem and then the flowers were for the taking for those creating custom-made altars, dozens of stations for which were made available by the Center for the Arts.

The cempasuchitl became customary because observers of the holiday came to theorize that the spirits of those who have passed away visit the living during the holiday. The vibrant orange and strong-smelling flowers serve as a guide, akin to a lighthouse of sorts, to the altars for the dead. Observers also believe that the cempasuchitl flowers, and flowers more broadly, serve as a representation of life’s fragility.

One person who created such an altar was the wife of Ely Ramos, who serves as a public relations and marketing specialist at the Center for the Arts.

“My wife was motivated to create an altar this year to remember her father who passed away last year in August,” explained Ramos. “It was really hard for her to deal with his death, plus him living in Oakland, it was hard for her to get closure. So last year during the Día de los Muertos Festival, she figured it would be good closure for her if she created an altar for her late father and she has continued the tradition this year. It has really been great for healing for her and her family!”

Gigi Lopez, a grandmother who attended the first day of festivities featuring the creation of the altars, said she attended as a means to teach her grandson about the Mexican holiday.

“We set up altars in our homes (and not at the Center for the Arts) to remember the loved ones that we’ve lost,” Lopez said. “It’s to keep their spirits alive, so to say.”

For some, going to the Center for the Arts’ Día de los Muertos Festival has turned into an annual affair.

“This was my second year attending. I was very moved by the love and care that people were putting into the small altar spaces for their loved ones who have passed,” explained event attendee Patricia Barden. “I think the center does a great job with these festivals. The music was wonderful, with outstanding voices and performance by the mariachi group.”

The Ituarte-led chunk of Día de los Muertos Festival sat as part of the broader “DesEscondido” art exhibit now on display at the Center for the Arts. Spanish for “no longer hidden,” the exhibit aims to make public the hidden aspects of Escondido — Spanish for “the hidden city” — which are public interest-oriented. It will remain open until Nov. 18.