Días de Muertos: Back to (from?) the Afterlife As pandemic eases, celebrations making a comeback


By Kathryn McKenzie

Like other public events these days, Días de Muertos are slowly coming back to life.

Some events are back and are much the same as they were, while others are being held virtually, or are scaled back in various ways. The exciting thing is that unlike 2020, Días de Muertos 2021 promises at least some in-person events and the chance to form community with others while celebrating the memories of loved ones and honoring their lives through processions, entertainment, family fun and more.

The Days of the Dead, Nov. 1 and 2, are holidays that reunited the living and the dearly departed, a chance to remember happy times with those who have shuffled off this mortal coil. A mingling of ancient Aztec rituals and Catholic tradition, Día de Muertos would not be complete without offerings placed on household altars, gatherings in cemeteries, making papel picado and decorating sugar skulls.

One organizer who is excited about hosting an in-person event is Consuelo Alba, executive director of the Watsonville Film Festival, who has been organizing an outdoor movie presentation as well as music, dance and art at downtown’s Watsonville Plaza for this Friday, Oct. 29. The lively event has brought thousands of people together in the past, but in 2020 it was held virtually due to the pandemic.

“We are thrilled to go back to the plaza to host this beautiful community celebration in person again,” said Alba. “Families love coming to the Plaza to watch the beloved movie ‘Coco’ and celebrate a festive holiday that honors loved ones who are no longer with us. We think this event will be a healing experience.”

More about the Watsonville event can be found below, along with other Día de Muertos events around the bay. All are free and open to the public.


Photo by Fred Hernandez

King City

In South Monterey County, an illuminated procession for Day of the Dead is planned for Friday, Oct. 29 starting at 6 p.m. The procession will start at Broadway  and Third and will proceed to 815 Broadway, where there will be food, music and a Catrina contest. The event is hosted by La Cocina.


Hartnell College will host an art reception and in-person celebration at the campus on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 6-8 p.m. at its Student Center.

The exhibit, “Duelo/Grief,” is organized by Hijos Del Sol under the direction of José Ortiz and features a number of local artists. Live dance, poetry and music performances are planned, with a procession that begins and ends at the center. Free pan de muerto and hot chocolate will be served.

San Juan Bautista

El Teatro Campesino is famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations, but this year is planning a pair of online events for Tuesday, Nov 2. By tuning in at ETC’s Facebook page, starting at 6 p.m., you can view a virtual celebration featuring short films. People can also contribute to ETC’s “virtual ofrenda” with photos, emojis, thoughts, memories and graphics by following this link.

Santa Cruz

The Santa Cruz Museum of Arts & History will be the center of Días de Muertos festivities in downtown Santa Cruz this weekend, with a community altar and video storytelling, culminating in live performances and ofrendas at a nearby cemetery.

The MAH, in collaboration with Senderos, a nonprofit organization creating cross-cultural connections locally and abroad, will present a community altar through Sunday, Oct. 31. Offerings for the altar can be contributed during MAH open hours.

The community is also invited to view chalk art by local Latinx artists within the Secret Garden and MAH entrance.

On Saturday, Oct. 30, a gathering at Evergreen Cemetery includes live performances by Senderos’ Centeotl Danza y Baile, Ensamble Musical de Senderos and musician Evelyn Salguero. Visitors can stroll through the cemetery in a self-guided presentation of community altars, honoring those buried at the cemetery, created by local community organizations and members.

The event is from 12-4 p.m. and takes place at 261 Evergreen St., Santa Cruz. More information is available at the MAH website.


Palenke Arts will host a Día de Los Muertos celebration on Monday, Nov. 1, starting at 6 p.m. at Oldemeyer Center in Seaside. The evening includes mariachi music, a chorus and folkloric dance, and a community altar and food (and it will be hosted by Voices’ own Claudia Meléndez Salinas). The center is located at 986 Hilby Ave.,  Seaside.


The Watsonville Film Festival, partnering with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, City of Watsonville and Hospice of Santa Cruz County to present a live Día de Muertos event at the Plaza, begins this Friday at 4 p.m. with performances by El Sistema, Academia de Música Ilusión, Estrellas de Esperanza, White Hawk Aztec Dancers and Esperanza del Valle. The animated film “Coco” will screen in Spanish with English subtitles starting at sunset. People are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, blankets and warm clothes.

In addition, Pajaro Valley Arts and Watsonville Brillante will offer family activities, including paper butterflies and colorful mosaic making. Watsonville Public Library will roll out its BiblioVan, a mobile library.

The heart and soul of the celebration are the altars, set up by families and nonprofit organizations, that honor ancestors and loved ones who have passed on. The public is welcome to bring flowers and offerings to leave on a community altar.

WFF will also  present an online film program titled “Ofrendas y Altares,” featuring a selection of documentaries about altars by iconic director Lourdes Portillo and local filmmakers Eugenia Rentería, Gabriel Jesse Medina and Marcus Cisneros. The films can be viewed at no charge through Tuesday, Nov. 2.

More details are available at watsonvillefilmfest.org/dia-de-muertos. All online and in-person events are free. Day of the Dead crafts tutorials for children by local artists and podcasts by Digital NEST members are also readily available on the festival’s website.

Featured image by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

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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).