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After incarnating as a series of pop-up exhibits last year, Oakland’s sprawling outdoor Dia de los Muertos Festival is back for its 26th year in the Fruitvale District with a focus on healing a community ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Reflecting the losses suffered by Fruitvale residents because of the virus over the past year and a half, event organizers have chosen the theme “Curando Corazones (Healing Hearts)” as the focal point of the daylong event this Sunday. The intent, organizers said, is to create a healing space in one of the areas in Alameda County hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Danza Azteca, a spiritual movement-based art form featuring dancers in feathered headdresses and ceremonial garb, will be featured at the Dia de los Muertos event in Oakland on Sunday. (Photo courtesy the Unity Council)

The result is a smaller but no less impactful event that’s part celebration of art and culture, and part community health fair designed to provide access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Ofrendas (altars created to honor the deceased); Danza Azteca, a spiritual movement-based art form featuring dancers in feathered headdresses and ceremonial garb; and a lowrider showcase will share space with vaccine and booster shots, COVID-19 testing and health professionals ready to answer questions. 

“The main goal of all the activities we’re doing is to allow our community to heal, not just physically with resources, information, vaccinations and testing but also heal spiritually,” said Itzel Diaz-Romo, interim director of development and communications of the Unity Council, which founded the popular festival in 1996. 

The impact of COVID-19 on the community has been staggering. Last fall, it was reported that coronavirus infection rates in three zip codes in Fruitvale and East Oakland were higher than those in the states of Georgia and Florida, and almost as high as infection rates in New York City. 

Diaz-Ramo attributed the problem to a lack of access to the vaccine and the challenges vaccination presents for residents, including essential workers and other community members who aren’t able to take time off to deal with possible side effects. A digital gap and language barriers are other obstacles. 

This year’s Dia de los Muertos festival in Oakland will include a vibrant display of lowrider vehicles. (Photo courtesy Jayasimha Nuggehalli Photography/the Unity Council)

That inspired organizers to restructure the festival to include a pop-up vaccination clinic from Kaiser Permanente with bilingual staff, so that people can receive the vaccine and be tested right on the street. 

“Making (the vaccine and testing) available on the weekend was crucial to us as well as not requiring appointments,” Diaz-Romo said.   

To further help keep the community safe, especially during an event where attendance in the past has easily swelled to 100,000 revelers, organizers are requiring masks and skipping the three festival stages normally filled with live entertainment. They’ve also suspended the tantalizing array of mobile food and merchandise vendors, and are encouraging festival-goers to patronize restaurants along International Boulevard and the more than one dozen eateries participating in Fruitvale Restaurant Week. For those looking to satisfy their appetite for locally made jewelry, apparel and other handcrafted items normally found at the festival, there’s online shopping in the Muertos Mercadito.

Ofrendas, or altars created in honor of the deceased, will take center stage at this year’s Dia de los Muertos event in Oakland. (Photo courtesy the Unity Council)

Because of the festival’s reimagining, organizers are expecting to see less than half the number of average attendees throughout the day. But those who head out will be rewarded by the dazzling display of ofrendas, which Diaz-Romo called “the heart of the event.” 

Crafted by 25 artists and community members, the altars will be mostly installed before the event starts, and the public will have an opportunity to participate by adding paper butterflies and other elements to them.  

Rounding out the day, there will also be a street soccer event, the Street Soccer USA Cup Series, a tournament for adult and youth teams. 

Oakland Dia de lo Muertos Festival, “Curando Corazones,” runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at International Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue. Admission is free, and masks are required. For more information, visit diaoakland.com. The online-on Muertos Mercadito can be accessed at https://eventhub.shop/2021-dia-de-muertos-mercadito/expo.