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David, 3, keeps the time for the “Danza Azteca,” a traditional dance performed by San Diego-based group Danza Mexi'cayotl. The dancers took center stage at the start of this year’s Dia de los Muertos event at La Colonia Park. Photo by Lexy Brodt.
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Thousands celebrate Dia de los Muertos in Solana Beach

SOLANA BEACH — La Colonia Park was a spectacle of tradition and color on Oct. 28 as a few thousand people from all over San Diego gathered to celebrate the city’s fourth Día de los Muertos event, the historic Mexican holiday meant to commemorate and celebrate the dead.

The event, held by La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation and the city’s Parks & Recreation Commission, brought together several bands, cultural performances, vendors, Mexican and American food, kids activities, and a contest for the best La Catrina/Catrin costume — a prominent motif of the holiday.

In addition to the festivities, the event hosted about a dozen altars — displays decorated to honor deceased family members. Dotted with bright orange marigolds, the displays lined the concrete steps at the edge of the park.

Hermenegilda Aguilar Rodriguez, an 18-year Solana Beach resident, has installed an altar every year at the Día de los Muertos event. She arrived at the park three hours before the first performance, framing the altar of her ancestors with palm fronds and colored flags.

Aguilar Rodriguez carefully assembled a collection of framed photos, fruits, figurines, a pack of Tecate beer and traditional foods — “things the deceased enjoyed,” she said.

Mario Aguilar, the leader and longtime teacher of the San Diego-based dance group Danza Mexi’cayotl, performs with about twenty other dancers at Solana Beach’s 4th annual Dia de los Muertos event. The dance’s history extends to the Chichimecas, a nomadic peoples formerly established in Northern Mexico. Photo by Lexy Brodt.

For Aguilar Rodriguez and many others, the holiday is an opportunity to “remember those who have passed.”

In spite of its solemn focus, Día de los Muertos is a celebration, rife with symbolic decorations, music and culture.

The day began with about 20 dancers performing an Aztec dance to the time of a drum beat, all adorned in traditional clothing and large looming headdresses.

Vendors came from across San Diego County to display and sell their La Catrina statuettes, kitchen items and artwork. An artist from Escondido, Louis Murguia, crafted papier-mâché skeleton figures at his booth; Fallbrook resident Leticia Maldonado-Stamos sold homemade earrings with “calavera” (decorated skulls) pendants, and handcrafted tortilla warmers, raising funds for a community service project promoting literacy.

Maldonado-Stamos has attended the Solana Beach celebration for the last three years.

“You get a really strong, warm community feeling,” she said of the event.

Regardless of its large, countywide attendance, the gathering still maintained a local touch. Outside of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ La Colonia Clubhouse, a tipi structure was strung with crayon-colored paper calaveras, on which some of the neighborhood’s children had written notes to their deceased loved ones.

A local nonprofit — the North County Immigration and Citizenship Center — set up a stand to inform attendees about paths to citizenship. Mayor Dave Zito spoke at the event, with Councilman Peter Zahn also attending.

However, many members of the Eden Gardens community chose to boycott this year’s gathering, due to rising concerns about the management of La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, according to one of the foundation’s founders and former vice chair of the board, Lisa Montes.

Instead, several of the community’s families opted to celebrate the holiday at a neighborhood home, an event attended by Dave Zito, Jewel Edson and Lesa Heebner.