The celebration was both solemn and joyful during the “danza Azteca” ceremony. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

In Mexican and Indigenous culture, there is a rich and present connection with death and the afterlife — one that is often more an expression of joy than mourning — and each year, family and friends gather to celebrate loved ones who have passed on to the other side during Día de los Muertos. La Casa de la Raza has traditionally hosted the annual celebration of the dead, but with its doors shut down temporarily, the Chicano community of Santa Barbara pitched in to host the event outdoors at Ortega Park on Sunday, complete with singing, dancing, face painting, and a special Youth Makers Market pop-up.

The event has been in the works for a few months and was a truly grassroots effort, with the combined resources of La Casa de la Raza’s new sister project La Casita, Freedom 4 Youth, El Centro S.B., Showing Up for Racial Justice, Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation, @ChicanoCultureSB, Youth Makers Market, and Just Communities. 

The day before the event, volunteers set up the ofrenda — a traditional altar for the dead. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

“This is your park; this is our park,” said Andi Garcia, an Eastside local and one of the event’s primary organizers. She worked with community activists Chelsea Lancaster and Michael Montenegro, Del Pueblo Café owner Gloria Sánchez-Arreola, and area youth to host the festivities as the sixth “Occupy Ortega Park” event this year, which aims to breathe new life into the Eastside park.  “The beauty of it: We didn’t have that space, so we had to call in other organizations to pull it together here at the park,” Garcia said.

Garcia has been part of similar celebrations at Chicano Park in San Diego, which is an unofficial sister park to Ortega, and she said it’s been a joy to see her local community celebrate in the park. “To see it in my own Eastside neighborhood and at the park that means that much to me — that’s a blessing,” she said.

The efforts began a week earlier, with a volunteer-run “Ortega Park Cleanup,” where local youth helped clear out the space and prepare it for the celebration. The day before the event, volunteers set up the ofrenda — a traditional altar for the dead, decorated with photos of loved ones lost, offerings of food and drinks, and the distinct orange-yellow marigolds that have come to hold a special place in Día de los Muertos celebrations. The space was blessed, and thanks were given to the ancestors of those who lived on the land before us.

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The celebration was both solemn and joyful, and during a danza Azteca ceremony, those in attendance were asked to speak the names of family and friends they had lost to connect this life and the next. Around the circle, in both English and Spanish, people named their parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, and friends — proving we are all connected by the pain of loss.

Organizers said that the community deserves a chance to grieve and celebrate, especially with so much uncertainty and death surrounding the past two years.

“Now more than ever, our community needs space to grieve and be together and reclaim space,” Lancaster said. “It’s that combination of pain, and honoring those we’ve lost, and our ancestors, and also hope for the future, joy, and all that good stuff.”

Youth Makers Market began in the summer as the brainchild of two sisters Aaliyah and Bella Rubio, with the help of their parents, Joel and Cecilia. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

Lancaster and Garcia both said they are glad to take a backseat to the next generation of youth, who have become acutely aware of social justice issues and sparked a new wave of activism and community building.

“The youth imagine a different world, and it’s really our charge to take their lead,” Lancaster said. Garcia agreed, and said: “We’re doing our job. We’re cultivating strong leaders, they’re showing us what they need, and we’re supporting them. They let us work alongside them.”

One of Santa Barabara’s fastest-growing nonprofit organizations is the Youth Makers Market, which set up Sunday right across the street in the parking lot of Paragon Gym, where young entrepreneurs sold crafts, snacks, clothes, and more for Día de los Muertos. 

It began in the summer as the brainchild of two sisters Aaliyah and Bella Rubio, with the help of their parents, Joel and Cecilia. The pop-up monthly market has expanded from a dozen vendors in its first event in September to nearly 40 for its November 21 market, which will be hosted at Santa Barbara High School’s senior parking lot.

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