Festive Celebration Features Grim Guests Of Honor

During a holiday that combines Catholic and indigenous South American traditions, family members gather at the graves of relatives to remember and celebrate their dead at the annual "Day of the Dead" celebration at a cemetery in Los Angeles.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Halloween may be over, but there's still more celebrating to be done. November 2nd is El Dia de los Muertos or The Day of the Dead.

Reporter Skye Rohde sent us this audio postcard about a gathering in Hollywood, California in observance of the Mexican tradition.

SKYE ROHDE: What hits you first when you walk through the iron gates of Hollywood Forever Cemetery is the sense of joy. It's in the bright colors, the flowers, the music. And in a place full of dead people celebrating a holiday that's all about dead people, joy is a welcomed companion.

(Soundbite of music)

ROHDE: Dia de los Muertos grew out of ancient Aztec and Maya traditions. Mix them with Spanish invaders, Catholicism and close-knit families, and you have the one day of the year when they say souls can return to earth to visit their loved ones.

Unidentified Man: And all those little details that we enjoy, we've been alive. (Foreign language spoken)

ROHDE: Many of the altars set up for these souls spread out the same way Los Angeles does - more wide than tall. They hold photos and precious possessions, banners of colorful tissue paper cut into patterns, smiling skulls. And everywhere you look there are Marigolds strung together in garlands, tucked behind ears, blanketing the altars.

Ms. MARISSA MENDOZA(ph): The scent is supposed to attract their spirits to come back and visit us that day. Skulls, which represent death. The candles, which is the light - that they're going to follow the light to come and visit us tonight. The food, you see the chilies and the bread and it's just for them to come and feast today.

Ms. ROHDE: Marissa Mendoza made masks and picture frames for her dead relatives.

Ms. MENDOZA: My grandfather loved the Dodgers so I made him a blue one with the Dodgers on it. And my grandmother is a really fancy lady, so I made them a fancy calavera mask. My grandfather up there - the green one - he loved his gold tooth, so I put a gold tooth with a little fancy mustache.

(Soundbite of music)

ROHDE: Families pour through the cemetery gates as the sun sets. Many head straight to the face painting tent for a makeover: all white, dark circles around the eyes, skeletal grimace drawn on. Then they wander past the candlelit alters. The sense of community is a given here. Everyone has loved and lost. The goal is to remember and celebrate.

The visitors crowd toward the stage, as Mexican singer Lila Downs starts performing. But many of the family members stay close to their altars. It's peaceful at this crossroads of the living and the dead. Alimento para el alma, one altar maker calls it - food for the soul.

For NPR News, I'm Skye Rohde.

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