Días de Los Muertos: Party with the dead Celebrations set all around the Central Coast

| Photo, The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

By Kathryn McKenzie

Halloween and Día de Muertos are like opposite sides of a coin, even though they’re celebrated around the same time and have some of the same elements. Halloween tells us to beware of spirits roaming the night. Día de Muertos tells us to go out and party with them.

The Day of the Dead (technically two days, Nov. 1 and 2) in Latin countries is a holiday that reunites the living and the dearly departed, a chance to honor those who have passed in celebration and remembrance. Born of ancient Aztec rituals, it’s not a solemn time, but a happy one, where death is just a continuation of life.

Ofrendas (offerings) are placed on household altars, which include photos of the departed loved one, decorations of bright yellow marigolds, and the departed’s favorite food and drink. Families may gather in cemeteries and pray for the deceased, with the hopes of receiving their blessings. Children munch on sugar skulls and make papel picado, and music, dance and poetry are all part of Día de Muertos community celebrations.

“It is one of the most beautiful events I’ve ever seen,” said Ashley Holmes, marketing coordinator for The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, which has been presenting Day of the Dead events since 1996. “The procession from the museum through the Santa Cruz Mission onto Evergreen Cemetery is what I think makes our event stand out. It is truly a sight to see hundreds of people with their faces painted, marigolds, paper flowers, giant puppets, and the bands parading along downtown.”

The Monterey Bay area hosts a number of outstanding Día de Muertos events this weekend. Many are free; all are open to the public.

CSU-Monterey Bay, Seaside

  • A community altar highlights the celebration at CSU-Monterey Bay’s main campus, where the university’s Visual & Public Art division will host its annual Day of the Dead Celebration event this Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. The collaborative altar is comprised of work by students in classes across campus as well as altars made by students, providing an opportunity to recognize the memory of loved ones.
    • The event begins with face painting at both the Student Center and VPA Building 72 from 5 to 5:45 p.m., followed by a procession of Aztec dancers at the VPA Complex from 5:45 to 6 p.m. and altar presentations from 6 to 8 p.m. More information is available at the CSUMB website.


  • CSUMB and other arts organizations come together for an afternoon and evening of dancing, music, art and celebration for Día de Muertos this Friday at CSUMB’s Salinas City Center. Interactive workshops begin at 3 p.m. for face painting, traditional crafts such as papel picado, plus a workshop on documenting family stories.
    • Also slated for the afternoon is an intimate conversation with featured sculptor/collage artist Kay Villalobos at 4:30 p.m., followed by calaveritas literarias and poetry readings from CSUMB students and renowned poets Rachelle Escamilla and Jeremy Michael Vasquez. Exhibits include one curated by Hijos del Sol Arts Productions featuring artworks from CSUMB and the community, another on Afro-Latino cultural traditions relating to death, and works by Villalobos. Visitors will also be able to have a sneak preview of the “CSUMB Honors Veterans” exhibition which officially opens Nov. 6.
    • Performances start at 5:15 p.m. with Native dancers Azolomi Danza Azteca, followed by a Michoacan play and a traditional Nuevo Leon border town dance by MexiDanza and music by Alma y Tradition, presented by Alisal Center for Fine Arts.
    • The Días de Muertos procession begins at 6:30 p.m., leaving from CSUMB Salinas City Center and continuing around the 100 block. At 7 p.m., free enchiladas and chocolate will be served in an immersive courtyard marigold installation created by CSUMB environmental studies students.
    • Entertainment continues at 7:15 p.m. with MexiDanza  performing adelitas from Jalisco and la danza de los viejitos from Michoacan. Also slated to perform are Tonatiuh Danzantes del Quinto Sol, musicians from the CSUMB music and performing arts department, and the evening concludes with an encore of calavaritas literarias and poetry. Films curated by CSUMB Cinematic Arts and Technology Department Chair Luis Camara including “Macario” will be projected outside in the second courtyard. More details are available online.
  • The annual “Bailando con la Muerte — A Community Celebration of Life and Remembrance” art exhibit will be featured at the Hartnell College Gallery through Nov. 10 and can be seen Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. at West Alisal at San Vincente.
  • This Saturday, Fiesta de los Muertos takes place at the Fox Theater, 241 Main St. in Oldtown Salinas, featuring four local bands. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 or $25. Slated to perform are The Ajimas, the Tommy Moon Band, The Lightfighters and MeeZ. Tickets for the 21+ show can be purchased in advance.

San Juan Bautista

  • Jardines de San Juan hosts its annual Day of the Dead party this Friday from 5 to 10 p.m., featuring a costume contest, tequila and mescal tastings, live music by Grupo Macabra, and a taco bar and face painting. Admission is free, but the tequila/mescal tasting is $20. The restaurant is at 36 Washington St.; information at jardinesrestaurant.com.
  • A Día de los Muertos Fiesta to keep local news alive is slated for the 18th Barrel at 322 Third St., a fundraiser for the community-supported news website BenitoLink. Tickets include one drink, appetizers and live music; it’s $15 in advance or $20 at the door for the 21+ event.
  • Esparanza del Valle is back for another round of Días de Muertos performances this weekend at the El Teatro Campesino Playhouse, 705 Fourth St., honing in on the dance traditions of Veracruz. Danzas, sones and bailes tropicales will be presented in the dance troupe’s choreodrama “Macaria,” which fuses dance and drama through traditional and cultural themes to celebrate Día de los Muertos. Performances will be Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday 12 and 5 p.m. The shows are expected to sell out; tickets range from $12 to $22 and can be purchased from Brown Paper Tickets.
  • Other fun, family-oriented Day of the Dead activities are planned for the playhouse parking lot from 3-8 p.m. Saturday, with music, dance performances, raffles, children’s activities and food for sale. A complete schedule is available at ETC’s Facebook event page.

Santa Cruz

  • The Santa Cruz Museum of Arts & History and Abbott Square will be the center of Días de Muertos festivities in downtown Santa Cruz this weekend, with art, live music, crafts, and a procession to a nearby cemetery.
    • On Friday, The MAH opens its doors at 705 Front St. for its monthly First Friday art tour from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., with three floors of exhibitions and drop-in crafts that include making sugar skulls and tissue paper flowers. Among the exhibits are “Regeneracíon,” an immersive re-creation of a historic mural, and “Idolos,” one artist’s representation of himself in the guise of Mexican icons.
    • On Saturday, from 12:30-6 p.m., there will be an all-ages festival throughout downtown Santa Cruz created in partnership between The MAH and Senderos, a nonprofit organization creating cross-cultural connections locally and abroad. The afternoon begins at The MAH with crafts that include face-painting, tissue paper flower making, luminarias and mariachi skeletons, with performances by Infantil de Centeotl Danza y Baile, Los Diablos Del Llano De Tecomate, and Ensamble Musical de Senderos.
    • A procession to Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park will begin on Cooper Street at 2 p.m. with mojigangas, giant colorful puppets, who lead the way alongside dancers and musicians. The procession will then depart at 2:55 p.m. for Evergreen Cemetery, where more music, dancing, Mexican food and drink by Senderos, and community altar installations can be found.
    • The evening concludes with a family-friendly movie screening starting at 6:15 p.m. and free popcorn; those who stay for the movie are advised to bring blankets and lawn chairs.


  • An evening of fun and film hosted by the Watsonville Film Festival at Watsonville Plaza starts at 4 p.m. this Friday with free hands-on activities, including crafts, face painting, mosaic making and the opportunity to visit a bookmobile.
    • Those who attend can enjoy dancing by local folkloric groups on the main stage, and dress up as a catrina or catrin and participate in the Catrines Catwalk. Special guest Juan Toscano of the Santa Cruz Warriors will be in attendance for photos and autographs. The Pixar film “Coco” starts at 7 p.m.; those who want to watch the movie are advised to bring lawn chairs, blankets and warm jackets. The film will be presented in Spanish audio with English subtitles.

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).