Community altars on Olvera Street honor the deceased for Day of the Dead

The Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation is hosting an outdoor display of community altars in celebration of Día de los Muertos on Olvera Street, in Downtown Los Angeles until Nov. 2. 

 A close-up view of the carefully placed ornaments for an altar, which was one of the few altars allowed for outdoor display this year due to the pandemic. Oct. 29. Pablo Unzueta/ Daily Forty-Niner

Olvera Street normally hosts events such as a Novenario Procession, or prayer, Dance of the Dead and a 5k run. The display will be its only in-person observance of the holiday this year. 

 For some people, this time of the year is an opportunity to learn more about heritage and ancestral traditions, which originate to the indigenous Aztecs and Spanish Catholics.

 “Personally, in my family we don’t celebrate it,” Elizabeth Rodriguez, who was visiting from the San Pedro area and is of Mexican descent, said. “Ancestral knowledge hasn’t really been passed down, but I want to learn more and connect with my roots.”


The multi-day holiday is typically celebrated from Nov. 1 to Nov. 2. Despite the coronavirus pandemic restricting in-person events and gatherings, the community altars continue to attract visitors to Olvera Street with social distancing guidelines. 

This year, visitors are required to wear masks and sanitize their hands prior to entering.

 “Normally we would have about 22 altars outside,” Valerie G. Hanley, treasurer of the OSMAF, said. “But right now, I think, we have 10 altars so we can have more social distance.”

 A group of three people create an altar for their deceased friend, Nacho Nava, in Olvera Street in downtown LA, on Oct. 29. Nava was known as a nightlife icon for people of color and the LGBTQ community before dying of pneumonia in January 2019. Pablo Unzueta/ Daily Forty-Niner

A group of three individuals created an altar on Thursday morning in honor of their friend, Nacho Nava, with carefully placed bright flowers, sweet bread, a bottle of beer and personal photographs. 

Nava, who died of pneumonia early last year, was the founder of “Mustache Mondays,” a weekly event in downtown home to queer-friendly parties and for artists alike. This became a hub for the gay bar scene in West Hollywood and led LA Weekly to describe him as a “visionary.” 

 “He had a lot of pull and reach for people from all over,” Irene U., a close friend to Nava, said. “There are a lot of people that miss him.”

 Typically, the ancestor’s favorite foods are placed on the altar as offerings. For this altar, fruit is placed on the floor, along with marigold flower petals on Oct. 29, in Olvera Street in downtown LA. Pablo Unzueta/ Daily Forty-Niner

Altars were scattered throughout the Paseo De La Plaza with several common decorations including colored skulls for ornaments, freshly picked marigold flowers clustered around the floor, perforated paper hanging from trees and light poles, carefully placed sweet bread and photographs of those deceased.

 Each item is designed to symbolize the awakening of the dead from their sleep to share the celebrations with their loved ones. The outdoor display is also a gesture to recognize death as a natural process to the human experience. 

 Vintage portraits of the deceased on Oct. 29, in Olvera Street in downtown LA. Pablo Unzueta/ Daily Forty-Niner

This will be the only in-person Día de los Muertos event this year on Olvera Street, which typically attracts hundreds of people each year. The OSMAF will be hosting a Día de los Muertos celebration virtually on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m.

 “This is a spiritual experience for me,” Rodriguez said. “And I also appreciate how this is a time that brings the community together.”

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