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About 80 altars honoring loved ones are set up during last year’s Dia de los Muertos festival at La Colonia Park. This room the staging area has been expanded to accommodate about 130. Photos courtesy City of Solana Beach
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Dia de los Muertos promises to be a lively event

SOLANA BEACH — Organizers of the second annual Dia de los Muertos festival say the food will be amazing and the music “off the hook.”

But the highlight of the free Oct. 30 event, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at La Colonia Park, will be more than 100 altars adorned to reflect relatives who have passed away.

“They can be decorated with any of their favorite things,” said Manny Aguilar, president of La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation. “It can be food, icons, flowers, novellas — anything that reminds people of their loved ones.”

The display was so popular last year that Aguilar and his wife, Mary Ann, expanded and reconfigured the staging area to accommodate more altars and provide easier accessibility, especially for the elderly.

The festival will also include face painting, a scavenger hunt, piñatas and contests for attendees of all ages.

The Aguilars were inspired to create the event after seeing “Journey of the Skeletons,” a play in which the Dia de los Muertes tradition is explained to a modern-day family.

“Because of the commercialism of Halloween, the tradition of honoring our loved ones and the idea of connecting with their family are lost,” Manny Aguilar said. “The kids in the play are on their cell phones, not paying attention to the discussion about their tradition.

“Then we were walking one day in (La Colonia) park and realized it would be a perfect place to set up altars,” he added. “We presented the idea to the board and they said, ‘Go for it.’”

Aguilar said the foundation board is always looking for ways to promote civic and cultural involvement, a goal that resulted from a needs assessment conducted a few years ago for the Eden Gardens community.

Last year the event attracted an estimated 2,000 people, more than double what was expected.

“We were very humbled,” Aguilar said. “I think it was so big because there was so much for everyone to do. The music, the food, the kids’ activities — it all helped to bring everybody together. The energy was amazing.”

He said people came from as far away as Texas, Arizona and Australia. One former Eden Gardens family is turning the event into a family reunion, with about 100 relatives expected to attend this year.

“But everyone’s invited — not just Latinos,” Aguilar said. “Everyone who wants to can do an altar as long as there’s space.”

Food will include everything from tamales, tacos, empanadas and nachos to hot dogs, roasted corn, smoothies, fruit salads and desserts.

“Our entertainment is phenomenal this year,” Mary Ann Aguilar said.

Scheduled to perform are Los Gringos Muertos, Enrique Magaña, CalPhonics, mariachis, Aztec dancers and ballet folklórico dance troupes.

There will also be a Catrin and Catrina contest, in which participants dress up as their favorite relative, celebrity or any other person who has passed away — no comic book or outer space characters allowed — with one caveat.

The costume reflects the deceased by all faces are painted as skeletons, but not in a way that’s meant to scare people.

“It’s the opposite of Halloween,” Mary Ann Aguilar said. “People really got into it last year.”

Cash prizes will be awarded in four age categories.

With the help of about 200 volunteers, Belly Up and sponsors that include the Harbaugh Charitable Foundation, Watkins Manufacturing, AT&T and San Diego Gas & Electric the Aguilars expect this year’s event to be bigger and better.

“Last year people said save me a space (for an altar), so this year we’re a little more organized,” Manny Aguilar said.

Space reservations are being taken for the altar area. Participants are asked to make a $20 donation for the foundation’s scholarship program for youth.

“And if somebody wants to give more than $20, we’ll take it,” Mary Ann Aguilar said. “But if they can’t afford $20, please put your altar up.”

Off-site parking will be available at Earl Warren Middle School and Santa Fe Christian Schools, which is also providing a shuttle.

“It’s a family friendly event with no alcohol or smoking,” Mary Ann Aguilar said. “It’s safe and kid-oriented.”

Additional sponsors are being sought. Contact Manny Aguilar at [email protected] for sponsor information or to reserve an altar space.

To volunteer email [email protected]. Visit the Supporters of La Colonia de Eden Gardens Facebook page for updates.