¡Que vivan los muertos! The Days of the Dead are alive around Monterey Bay


By Kathryn McKenzie

Day of the Dead traditions that go back to ancient times have been given new life as they continue to evolve around the Monterey Bay. This year, the lifting of pandemic restrictions have brought a new flowering of Día de los Muertos events, with everything from cemetery meetups in Santa Cruz to a pop orchestra performance in Salinas.

The Days of the Dead are Nov. 1 and 2, but this weekend is prime time for celebrating and honoring those who have passed on, with celebrations extending into next week.

All are free and open to the public.


A Family Fun Day with artist-in-residence Victor-Mario Zabella is slated for Saturday, Oct. 29, from 11 a.m-3 p.m. at Monterey Museum of Art’s Pacific Street location. No registration is required and all ages are welcome.

Participants can create engraved images of calaveras (skulls), corazones ardientes (burning hearts) and more. Free admission to the museum is offered so that visitors can view Zabella’s large-scale lantern installation, “Necauhcayorl, Gratitude Memento, Recuerdo de Gratitud,” which was inspired by Día de los Muertos. The museum is at 559 Pacific St. and Zabella’s exhibition will run through Nov. 6.


  • Alisal Center for the Fine Arts and Monterey County Pops! will present a Día de los Muertos celebration at Sherwood Hall in Salinas on Saturday; doors open at 6 p.m. The interactive evening show includes performances by the Monterey County Pops Orchestra, ACFA Performance Ensemble, ACFA Alma y Tradición Baile Folklórico and ACAN/AUSD Mariachi Juvenil. An art exhibition with ACFA Arts Class, Ariel Mar, Armando Franco, Samantha Saldana and Ricardo Ibarra is also planned.
  • Hijos del Sol Arts Productions, Hartnell College and Hospice Giving Foundation invite the community to participate in a Day of the Dead celebration at the college, which includes traditional arts and crafts, its arts and crafts, community altars, a procession and calaveritas literarias.

The evening begins with arts and crafts workshops on Tuesday, 6-8 p.m. at the Hartnell College Student Center, 411 Central Ave., with instructors helping participants make masks, paper flags, paper flowers, altarpieces, sugar skulls and other traditional crafts. All ages are welcome and materials will be provided.

Also starting at 6 p.m. will be a procession led by Azolomi Danza Azteca, focused on the artistic expression of the living through music, costumes, prayers and much more. Participants of all ages are invited to bring their LED candles, musical instruments and wear catrina/catrín costumes in honor of iconic artists, personalities, poets and politicians.

Calaveritas literarias will also be performed: they’re humorous and satirical poems which are meant to poke fun at celebrities, politicians and public figures.  If you are interested in participating, email Erandi Garcia at egarcia@hospicegiving.org.

There will also be an ofrenda comunitaria, or community altar, created by Hijos Del Sol which is on display both Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 1-2, for which the public is encouraged to add notes, flowers, photos, or other meaningful objects to remember dearly departed family members and friends. More information about the Hartnell College event can be found at hospicegiving.org/dayofthedead.

San Juan Bautista

El Teatro Campesino is once more throwing a Day of the Dead party, and — for the first time since the pandemic started — is hosting this one in person. All activities will be held outdoors, with activities beginning at the ETC Playhouse at 705 Fourth St. and a procession that will wind its way through downtown San Juan Bautista.

Día de los Muertos festivities take place Wednesday, Nov. 2 from 6-8:30 p.m. at the playhouse, with performances, altar exhibits, a photo booth, pan de muerto, Corina’s Cantina and the ETC Tiendita. The public is welcome to add items to the community altar. The procession through San Juan Bautista begins at 7 p.m. and you can see the route here.

Santa Cruz

The Santa Cruz Museum of Arts & History is continuing to put a fresh spin on traditional Day of the Dead activities, with a cemetery meetup, a tapete ceremony, and celebration with dance, art and music.

The week of Día de los Muertos activities begins with an Evergreen Volunteer Day on Friday, where community members are encouraged to volunteer at historic Evergreen Cemetery, 261 Evergreen St. in Santa Cruz from 9:30 a.m.-noon. Tools and gloves will be provided. A ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open a new ADA-compliant pathway at the cemetery takes place at 10 a.m.

Later Friday, Oaxacan artist Sergio Vicente Garcia Aguilar will create a tapete, or sand sculpture, in a special event at MAH from 5-5:45 p.m. The artist was invited by MAH partner Senderos.

On Saturday, Oct. 29, a Día de los Muertos celebration takes place at Evergreen Cemetery from 12-4 p.m., with live performances by Senderos’ Centeotl Danza y Baile and Ensamble Musical de Senderos. All are welcome to stroll through the cemetery to view the community altars that have been set up there.

A Mourner’s Potluck will be held at the cemetery on Nov. 2, 5:30-6:30 p.m. Hosted by grief therapist and poet Mackenzie Studebaker and MAH curator and exhibitions manager Everett Ó Cillín, attendees will experience poems and performances on the themes of grief and grieving and are invited to bring a ritual dish to share. This could be a comfort food, something that reminds you of a loved one who has died, or a dish tied to a grief memory. There will also be a small community altar at the event where individuals are encouraged to bring a small ritual object to set the tone for the evening. RSVPs are required for this event.

Concluding the week will be another Evergreen Volunteer Day on Nov. 4 from 9:30 a.m. – noon, also at Evergreen Cemetery.


  • Mission Mortuary & Memorial Park is hosting a Día de los Muertos event at the Seaside cemetery, on Saturday, Oct. 29 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. featuring Mexican food, Halloween candy and face painting.
  • Mariachi music, folkloric dance and a community altar are among the delights awaiting the public at the Día de Los Muertos celebration on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 6-8 p.m. at Oldemeyer Center. The evening is hosted by Palenke Arts at 986 Hilby Ave.


Building on the tradition set in previous celebrations, Friday night the Watsonville Film Festival will present its fifth annual Día de Muertos event at Watsonville Plaza, featuring the animated movie “Coco” as well as music, dance and art inspired by Day of the Dead.

“We are hosting this beautiful community event in partnership with many local organizations,” said WFF executive director Consuelo Alba. “It’s a healing experience. We gather in community to remember and honor those we have loved and lost. Families love coming to the plaza to see the community altars, watch ‘Cocoand continue this ancient tradition.”

WFF is partnering with the City of Watsonville Parks and Community Services, Santa Cruz County Office of Education and Hospice of Santa Cruz County to present the festivities at the plaza. There is also a free online program at https://watsonvillefilmfest.org/dia-de-muertos.

The heart and soul of the annual celebration are the altars created by families and nonprofit organizations to honor ancestors and loved ones who have passed on. Monarch Services, Watsonville High School Hope Club, CASA of Santa Cruz County, Community Life Service and the California Highway Patrol are among the groups creating ofrendas this year.

In addition, more than 30 local artists and artisans will be showcased at the first Mercado de Día de Muertos marketplace, hosted by Arte del Corazón at the Romo Lawn, across from the plaza, from 3-7 p.m.

Art activities begin at 4 p.m. with Pajaro Valley Arts, Watsonville Brillante, WHS Hope Club, Hospice of Santa Cruz and Arte del Corazón offering face painting, as well as making paper butterflies, luminarias and colorful mosaics.

Performances by local groups begin at 5 p.m, featuring Activities for All/Academia de Música Ilusión, Estrellas de Esperanza, the White Hawk Aztec Dancers and the quartet RosaAzul.

The film “Coco” will screen at 7 p.m. in Spanish with English subtitles. People are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, blankets and warm clothes.

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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).