Members of Senderos’ Youth Musical Ensemble play as the Día de Muertos procession heads from downtown to Mission State Historic Park. 

A cool breeze filled the Evergreen Cemetery with the fresh smell of eucalyptus trees and copal, two scents invoking divine contemplation. Bright orange cempasuchil petals adorned the rows of graves, guiding the spirits toward their altars. Community members enjoyed warm pozole and champurrado, while the blairing horns and the steady thump of the youth band’s bass drum honored the dead as they embarked on their spiritual  journey.

Senderos and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History organized the “Día de Muertos Festival” in downtown Santa Cruz on Nov. 2. Over 150 community members joined in festivities that included calavera face painting, a parade from downtown to the Evergreen Cemetery and traditional Mexican dance  performances. 

“We need to maintain and preserve these traditions and pass them onto future generations. It’s a way of remembering our loved ones and an opportunity to talk about death,” said participant Jenny Robles in Spanish. “Death is something that our culture doesn’t really talk about, but instead of viewing it as something sad, we can make a celebration out of it.”

El Día de Muertos is an Aztec tradition celebrated on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 that began before the conquista, the Spanish and Portugese colonization of the Americas. Today it’s celebrated in parts of Latin America and the U.S. On the eve of the holiday, families spend the night at their loved ones’ graves, celebrating and remembering the lives of those who have passed on to the next life. Families transform graves into works of art, decorating them with elaborate mantels of flowers, photographs and food. 

“Our ancestors have always revered their dead. Celebrating the dead was important for my ancestors because they believed that they don’t just die, they take on a new form of life,” said Froylan Laureano, co-director of Senderos’ Youth Musical Ensemble, in Spanish. “That’s why we celebrate every year and this tradition will never die. It is sacred for us.”

The Senderos’ Youth Musical Ensemble played traditional Oaxacan music at Mission Santa Cruz and the Evergreen Cemetery while people enjoyed elotes and tacos. The group of about a dozen youth maintained the celebratory spirit of el Día de Muertos as they led the procession of devotees through the streets of Santa Cruz. 

Two children from the Senderos youth group of Centeotl Danza y Baile curtsy at the end of their performance in downtown Santa Cruz. 

Dance group Los Diablos del Llano de Tecomates performed “La Danza de los Diablos” at Mission Santa Cruz. “La Danza de los Diablos” is a traditional dance from the state of Oaxaca that represents the duality of good and evil. The dancers wear frightening, wood-carved devil masks, baggy leggings made from goat hair and large goat horns while twirling and cracking a whip. 

“It is important to acknowledge the deceased ones. As we know, in our culture, family is super important, and also understanding that they played an important role for us to be here five, six, seven generations ago. The link is there,” said José Quevedo, assistant principal at Soquel High. “We started from somewhere.”

El Día de Muertos brings people together through death, the inevitable event that forever separates us from the people we love most. For Mexicans, el Día de Muertos is a day when family members can find solace in this separation and connect with their ancestors whose spirits continue to live within their memories. 

“We celebrate to bring joy to death, to not be sad. We joyfully welcome the dead. They say that the first and second of November is when the spirits return and we greet them as if it were a party, with music and good vibes,” said Froylan Laureano, in Spanish. “We are happy because the spirits come to visit us.”

A diablo shows off their celebratory garments in a dance filled with twirling and whip  cracking.