Two-day Old Town event honors ancestors while celebrating culture, diversity and tradition
By Monica Garske | SDUN Reporter
Next week, Old Town San Diego will be more colorful and festive than usual as residents and businesses in the historic neighborhood come together to commemorate Dia de los Muertos, one of Mexico’s most iconic holidays.
Also known as Day of the Dead, it is a day when family and friends gather to joyfully remember loved ones who have passed by celebrating their lives. On Thursday, Nov. 1 and Friday, Nov. 2 San Diego’s local preservation group Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) will host the third annual Dia de los Muertos celebration.
The free, two-day event is funded in part by a grant from Council President Pro Tem Kevin Faulconer’s office as well as donations from Old Town businesses and sponsors, SOHO’s education and communications director Alana Coons said.
The family-friendly event – which runs from 1 to 8 p.m. on Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday – includes live music, poetry readings, dancing, face-painting, arts and crafts, and special menus at various locations throughout Old Town.
Coons said that this year, more than 30 businesses, museums and eateries are taking part in the festivities, including title sponsor, Cafe Coyote, located at 2461 San Diego Ave.
“We have participated and believed in this great event since day one,” said Cafe Coyote owner Lehn Goetz. “There’s such a community-oriented feel to the whole thing and it’s amazing how many businesses get involved. It also has this deep historical and cultural element to it, which makes it both fun and educational for everyone.”
The event will boast more than 50 colorful, personalized altars honoring deceased historical figures and loved ones. The altars – decorated with vibrant flowers, photos, personal mementos, sweet treats and other “offerings” for the dead – will be on display throughout Old Town’s museums, hotels, shops and restaurants, Coons said.
At Cafe Coyote, Goetz said their altar will be hard to miss, and is truly a collaborative effort between her staff and guests.
“We asked all of our staff members to bring photos and mementos of their deceased family members to add to the altar. It really represents our restaurant family as a whole and has a very personal feel to it. We also encourage our guests to add their own special photos and touches to it. Everyone is welcome at our altar,” Goetz said.
Another elaborate altar this year is SOHO’s “Lost San Diego” altar, which is designed to honor San Diego’s lost architectural treasures and the notable individuals who have dedicated themselves to preserving local history.
Coons said their Lost altar will be on display at the Whaley House complex on San Diego Avenue, and will honor SOHO founder Miles Parker, who passed away earlier this year, as well as other longtime SOHO volunteers including three-term president Beth Montes and local activists Mary Wendorf, Dale May and Kathy Flanigan.
Another major altar honoring San Diego’s iconic Whaley Family, including patriarch Thomas Whaley, will be on display.
At the Fiesta de Reyes complex on Calhoun Street, more than 15 altars will be exhibited at shops and restaurants. Fiesta de Reyes will also feature live music, face-painting and other crafts and activities for both adults and children.
Coons said Bazaar del Mundo on Taylor Street will add to the festival with a live art show, as well.
In addition, many Old Town restaurants including Cafe Coyote, Barra Barra Saloon and Casa de Reyes will boast unique Dia de los Muertos-themed menus.
Goetz said Cafe Coyote’s special menu, available for one week starting Friday, Oct. 26, features traditional dishes and drinks associated with the Mexican holiday.
“Our kitchen team created the entire menu by mixing classic items with favorite dishes from their own families. [Some] include turkey enchilada mole, spicy ‘El Inferno’ shrimp, traditional tamales and maple pumpkin pot de crème. Also, we have a bunch of special margaritas on the menu, which is always important,” she said.
Coons said the Old Town event has grown substantially in the past three years, from approximatley 1,200 attendees in its first year to 10,000 attendees last year. Both Coons and Goetz said they expect between 20,000 and 25,000 attendees this year.
Approximately 5,000 people, Coons said, will partake in one of the highlights of the celebration: a lively, candlelit procession taking place at 6 p.m. on Nov. 2.
The Dia de los Muertos procession begins at the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park Plaza. From there, participants will walk down San Diego Avenue to El Campo Cemetery, where they’ll find a large community altar covered in offerings for late loved ones. Visitors are encouraged to add their own tokens to the public altar.
“This is a way for the public to add their own touch to the event and interact directly with one another. In the end, it becomes this beautiful and meaningful public art installation dedicated to those who are gone, but not forgotten,” Coons said.
Goetz said watching the procession down historic San Diego Avenue is truly a unique experience.
“It brings everyone together for a moment. A few years ago, it started as this small, little walk down the street and now so many people participate. The fact that we do this in Old Town, the birthplace of San Diego, makes it even better,” she said.
Ultimately, Coons said the idea behind Dia de los Muertos is to celebrate local diversity, culture and tradition while educating the public about the holiday in a fun, accessible and interactive way.
“At SOHO we’re always concerned with preserving tradition and the cultural landscape of our communities. We like to focus on events that say something about the community, and this event in Old Town does just that,” she said. “It’s very, very special.”
Councilmember Faulconer said he agrees with the sentiment, which is why his office recommended $7,000 from its Community Projects, Programs and Services fund to help produce this year’s event.
“I’m proud to support Save Our Heritage Organisation’s Dia de los Muertos festival, an exciting family event that celebrates Old Town’s unique community character, highlights San Diego’s rich Mexican history and supports local business,” he said. “Community festivals such as Dia de los Muertos keep San Diego’s cultural heritage alive.”
Free maps and candles for the Nov. 2 procession will be available at participating businesses throughout Old Town. For more information about the Dia de los Muertos celebration, including a full schedule of activities and a downloadable, self-guided walking tour map, visit sddayofthedead.org.