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Article: Healing Hearts at Oakland’s Dia de los Muertos Festival

Crowd watching dancers at the festival.

Healing Hearts at Oakland’s Dia de los Muertos Festival

The Fruitvale, Oakland's Largest Latinx Community 

The Fruitvale is a vibrant neighborhood in East Oakland. It's a community too often affected by tragedy, violence, shootings, pollution, and economic inequality. It's also home to many frontline essential workers and is one of three zip codes that experienced the highest rates of COVID-19 in Alameda County. And the Fruitvale, like much of Oakland, continues to battle the forces of gentrification.

However, the more important stories are about how the community's darker moments have led to thriving movements for solidarity and justice. The Fruitvale is home to Oakland's largest Latinx community and its residents draw on their cultural heritage for both assurance and strength.

Tow girls, altar, marigolds, skull.

It's a neighborhood defined by its cultural vibrancy, imaginative problem solving, and the economic resilience created by hundreds of successful small businesses, many of which are over half a century old. Fruitvale is family-oriented, community-minded, and exceptionally accepting and welcoming, and has an unbreakable cultural backbone deeply rooted in many waves of immigration.

It's long been a community where immigrants have found new and better homes, many of whom arrived with nothing. The Fruitvale is a place where people can restart their lives after losing everything. These are the characteristics that make the Fruitvale quintessentially Oakland. So, it's not surprising that the neighborhood hosts one of Oakland's most cherished annual events — The Oakland Día de los Muertos Festival.

Day of the Dead, An Over 3,000 Year Old Tradition

The festival celebrates the Day of the Dead, a tradition that originated in southern Mexico over 3,000 years ago and is now celebrated worldwide, especially in California. Every year between November 1st and November 2nd, Mexican families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink, music, and celebration.

According to the tradition, heaven's gates open at midnight on November 1st, and the spirits of children then can rejoin their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults can do the same on November 2nd. Many Latinx families set up colorful altars to welcome these spirits back home with decorative skulls, skeletons, candles, incense, sugar scrolls, traditional flowers, food, pictures, and other items their loved ones cherished while alive.

The Oakland Día de los Muertos Festival, the East Bay's Largest Latinx Cultural Event

The Oakland Día de los Muertos Festival is a free, family-friendly festival celebrating the Day of the Dead. It is produced by The Unity Council, a nonprofit, community-driven organization based in the Fruitvale district. Every dollar raised supports its mission to promote social equity and improve quality of life by building vibrant communities where everyone can work, learn, and thrive.

Founded in 1996, the Oakland Día de los Muertos Festival is now the East Bay's biggest Latinx cultural event and a cherished Oakland tradition. Every year, festival organizers award $25,000 in grants and stipends to community members, artists, dancers, and other cultural practitioners to bring their arts and cultural traditions to the Fruitvale.

Town artists and designers vie for the honor of creating the annual collectible festival poster, which is distributed throughout the Bay Area. 

The Oakland Día de los Muertos Festival opens with traditional performances of Danza Azteca, a spiritual movement practice thought to be a way to communicate with spirits. The dancers or 'Danzantes' wear elaborate regalia with feathered headdresses, painted faces, ankle rattles (chachayotes), and other ceremonial garments.

Woman wearing colorful headdress and dress, with shaker.

One of the main attractions of the Oakland Día de Los Muertos Festival is the creation of dozens of ornately decorated altars. These are set up by local artists and community members to commemorate loved ones, community leaders or to raise awareness of unjust deaths such as those caused by immigration detention centers, gun violence, or hate crimes.

Many of the altars are a kind of peaceful, family-friendly resistance against those seeking to diminish Mexican traditions. Throughout its history, the festival organizers have used its platform to raise awareness of social justice issues and current events. Over the years, the festival’s altars have honored those impacted by Trump's suspension of DACA, memorialized the Ghostship fire, and drawn attention to inhumane immigration detention centers in the USA.

The festival typically draws over thousands of people from every corner of the Bay Area and is a boon for Fruitvale small businesses. More importantly, it elevates Latino culture for everyone to enjoy and provides an impetus for Oakland residents of Mexican descent to reconnect with their culture.

'Real Fruitvale' Mini-Documentary Series

Last year the festival celebrated its 25th anniversary with an online event, including releasing a mini-documentary series called 'Real Fruitvale' produced by world-renowned Oakland artist Favianna Rodriguez. The series profiles the resiliency and versatility of people who live and work in the neighborhood. It follows the lives of artists, culture makers, and social change agents who have thrived despite incredible odds while showcasing the Fruitvale's cultural vibrancy and promoting social change and activism.

2021 Dia de los Muertos Theme is Curando Corazones (Healing Hearts) 

This year, the organizers are thrilled to resume in-person activities at a smaller scale, highlighting the ofrendas, Danza Azteca, and low-riders, all of the vital elements of the festival. In addition, festival-goers will enjoy live pop-up performances, the Street Soccer USA Cup sponsored by the Oakland Roots and Anthem Blue Cross, and the authentic flavors of the mom-and-pop restaurants located on the festival’s footprint.

The Festival organizers believe that this year more than ever, it's critical to create space for grieving Latinx Communities to practice indigenous rituals to heal from pandemic losses. So in honor of their 26th Anniversary, and to mark the tumult caused by the pandemic, this year's festival theme is Curando Corazones or Healing Hearts.

The 2021 Día de los Muertos Festival will take place on Sunday, October 31st, between 10 am and 5 pm on International Blvd between Fruitvale and 42nd Avenue. 

Shop the collection: Día

Find more information on the Día de los Muertos Festival website. 

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