Before the pandemic, thousands would gather each year for the Day of the Dead Festival of the Altars. Here, performers lead the ritual prayer. (Photo by Rosa De Anda)

Life is change, and losing a loved one can be the most profound and lonely change we will ever experience. We think of our departed loved ones every day, but on Nov. 1-2, Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, many of us weave ritual and pageantry in a celebration that merges their celestial spirit, memory and wisdom with our own lives on earth.

For the last 29 years, Rosa De Anda, founder and executive director of San Francisco’s Marigold Project — an educational resource for the preservation of Mesoamerican culture — has led the Day of the Dead Festival of the Altars. Over the years, the event brought as many as 20,000 people to Mission District parks for altar-building, prayer and pageantry that included drumming groups, dancers and mariachis. 

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There are always five elemental altars that are the backdrop for prayers, built by artists from many disciplines, all working together. There are always spiritual leaders guiding the ritual prayers. There are always marigolds with their pungent scent that leads the spirit back home. And there are always people in colorful, traditional Mexican dress. This year is no different, though the festival will be virtual. De Anda is encouraging the community to build their own altars at home and then tune into the Marigold Project’s virtual program on YouTube, at DayoftheDeadSF – The Marigold Project.

The festival has been a labor of love for De Anda, who started it in 1991 when she was the education director at the Mission Cultural Center. That year, arts funding in the city dried up, and she and her collaborators had to find other sources to help pay for the festivities, she says. She spent the entire year planning, raising money, and seeking volunteers, artists and performers to help her make the event a reality. After De Anda had been running the festival for several years, there were rumblings in the Latino community about cultural appropriation during Day of the Dead celebrations, when people from outside the community would paint their faces in the traditional “La Catrina” style. De Anda pushed back. All are welcome, she says. 

“If you are respectful and want to learn and participate, we welcome you,” De Anda says. “This is the nature of being Mexican and Latino and Latinx.”

Transforming an event that was previously developed by volunteers in a city park and making it virtual was an incredible undertaking. Everything —  from altar-building to performances — had to be scripted and planned in advance, and everything had to be filmed and edited to create the program that will be broadcast this year, De Anda says. 

A young performer from Rising Rhythm during the filming of the Day of the Dead Festival of the Altars, 2020. (Photo by Rosa De Anda)

Before the pandemic, De Anda, volunteers, artists and members of the community would build five elemental altars across a Mission District park. The public would leave their letters and flowers for loved ones at the elemental altars, and many other altaristas (altar makers) would register to make smaller altars, too. This year, artists built everything in the studio. The altars represent an element, a universal symbol and a stage of life. The east altar represents air and is dedicated to ancestral children. Their symbol is the circle — the interconnectedness of life and death. The south altar represents fire and is made for ancestral youth. Its symbol is the triangle and symbolizes strength, art, poetry and passion.

The west altar represents water and recalls ancestral adults. Its symbol is the square and represents life and natural cycles. The north altar celebrates the earth and all of our ancestors, and conjures past and future wisdom with a cross symbol. The center altar celebrates love in its many forms.

“As a living person, I am made up of all the thousands of ancestors who came before me,” De Anda says. “It is my duty to acknowledge them. We can honor all their greatness with the creativity we express.”

* The virtual Day of the Dead Festival of the Altars takes place 7-8:30 p.m. Monday. Watch the streaming event here. The event is free, but donations are welcome here.