For Día de los Muertos 2023, we thought we’d add some never-before-seen photos to the blog, depicting a classic Día de los Muertos celebration 24 years ago. These photos were submitted to the American Folklife Center as part of Local Legacies, a collection project undertaken by the Center in the late 1990s to help celebrate the Library’s Bicentennial in 2000. Sharp-eyed readers might notice that we’ve used these images in brochures and flyers over the years, but this is our chance to tell you what they are and where they came from.
As the Library announced back in 2000:
“The Local Legacies project was initiated by members of Congress and individuals across the nation to commemorate the Library of Congress Bicentennial and to celebrate America’s richly diverse culture. For more than a year, Local Legacies teams documented the creative arts, crafts, and customs representing traditional community life; signature events such as festivals and parades; how communities observe local and national historical events; and the occupations that define a community’s life. More than three-fourths of Congress and 4,000 Americans have been a part of this once-in-a-lifetime project.”
As part of Local Legacies, Representative Barbara Lee’s team submitted a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival from Oakland, California. Project documentation in the collection includes a two-page report; nine 8 x 10 color photographs; programs, flyers, street maps, and a tee-shirt from the October 30, 1999 celebration; information on the Fruitvale Main Street Program, with 3-year retrospective photos of the event; and videotapes of the 1998 and 1999 festivals.
In this blog, we’re just presenting the 1999 photos. The flyers, maps, t-shirt and other items include original artwork along with information about the festival. They’re accessible to researchers in the Folklife Research Center, but we can’t put them online at this time.
In 2000, the American Folklife Center’s project team described this collection this way:
“Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Fruitvale Festival is an annual one-day street festival held in the Fruitvale district of Oakland and sponsored by the Spanish Speaking Unity Council. The event began in 1996 and was used to launch the Fruitvale Main Street Program, which is part of the overall revitalization effort of the Fruitvale commercial area led by the Unity Council in this primarily low-income Latino community.”
“This cultural event, which is free to the public, serves to document, celebrate, preserve and promote the traditional celebration of the holiday. It is believed that on this day, the Day of the Dead, the deceased are given divine consent to visit with their relatives and friends on earth. The annual reunion takes place on November 1st and 2nd, merging the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day with the Aztec Quecholli, the fourteenth month of the Aztec solar calendar that honored warriors. The festival incorporates the unique cultural traditions of the Spanish-speaking and indigenous residents in a format of openness and cross-cultural celebration. Día de los Muertos is relevant to all people regardless of ethnic background — everyone is impacted by death and can pay tribute to their loved ones.”
“In Mexico, Día de los Muertos is commemorated with elaborately decorated ofrendas (altars), specially prepared foods, and music for the occasion. The altars range from modest individual tributes to departed family members — which often include photos, favorite belongings, foods, fresh flowers, and papel picado (colorful hand-cut papers) — to larger more expensive installations which have specific themes. The Fruitvale festival enlists the talents of local artists from all cultures, who construct the elaborate ofrendas that are displayed in business windows and at other community locations. In addition to the creation of altars by artists, musicians and dancers appear on three main stages.”
“The Día de los Muertos celebration promotes and preserves the tradition of the area’s Spanish-speaking and indigenous populations. It provides a safe and entertaining venue for people from Oakland and all over the Bay area to experience the cultural traditions and values of the community as they celebrate the “Day of the Dead.” Given its success in recent years, and the growing popularity of the event, it is expected to attract more than 60,000 people in the year 2000.”
At the Library of Congress, we don’t know if they met their goal of 60,000 people in the year 2000, but we do know the festival has survived and thrived until the current day. After celebrating the 25th anniversary festival online in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival returned to Fruitvale in 2021. In 2022, they estimate they brought almost 100,000 people out to celebrate. As the festival website notes:
“The Oakland Día de los Muertos Festival is a free, outdoor festival that brings over 100,000 people to the vibrant, culturally-rich Fruitvale neighborhood to enjoy world-class live music, family-friendly games, rides and activities, traditional Latin American artisans, and the stunning altar artistic installations created by community members paying homage to los Muertos. The Día de los Muertos Festival was inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress by Congresswoman Barbara Lee as a ‘Local Legacy.'”
This year’s celebration will be held on October 29, 2023. If you’re in the Bay Area, why not plan to attend? Find out more at the event’s website!
To say a little about the Mexican name of the holiday, the earlier name was “Día de Muertos.” In Spanish, “Muertos” can be either an adjective or a noun: “dead” or “dead people,” and by extension “ancestors.” So “Día de Muertos” means “Day of Dead [People]” but also “Ancestors’ Day.” When the name was rendered in English, since “dead” is not a noun, we had to add the definite article, and the name of the holiday became “Day of THE Dead.” As the New York nonprofit Mano a Mano points out, the “los” in the contemporary Spanish phrase “Día de los Muertos” seems to have come from a translation of this Anglicized phrase “Day of the Dead” back into Spanish. The “los” was rarely used in Latin America before the 1960s–however, now both names are used, and “Día de los Muertos” is increasingly common. When we created our resource guide, we chose the older name, but since this collection uses the word “los,” I have used that form of the name in this blog post.
Of course, the Oakland Día de los Muertos festival is only one of many traditions associated with the Día de los Muertos holiday, and the related celebration Halloween. As always, you can find out about some of the great collections in the Library of Congress related to these two holidays in our Halloween and Día de Muertos Research Guide, which you can find at this link.