The Fruitvale Village corridor during the festival in 2017. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

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Something mystical that happens every year in Fruitvale when October comes around. The light posts lined up along International Boulevard and the trees that hang over its street and sidewalks are transformed by colorful paper marigolds, which will adorn them well into November. For residents and visitors of this vibrant community, including me, the yellow and orange hues of the paper flowers serve as an early reminder that Día de Los Muertos is upon us.

For those of us who grew up around Fruitvale, attending the festival is a yearly tradition we look forward to. Growing up, my mom and grandma would make the trek from home with my brothers and sisters. It was an excuse for my grandma to patronize as many of the neighborhood’s shops as possible. My siblings and I had a blast, whether it was eating, trying to win a prize at one of the festival booths, or, my favorite, standing in a circle around the Aztec dancers and paying attention, attentively and without disrupting, to their sacred ceremonies. I would always be in awe of the exquisitely detailed ofrendas (offerings) made by members of the community, of the love and care they put into their work, for other community members to see.

A community member’s ofrenda from 2016 at the festival alluding to Trump’s presidential campaign of building a wall along the border. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

A tradition that dates back to pre-colonial times, this sacred celebration on November 2 is the one day of the year when our loved ones who have passed come to visit us. For in Nahuatl mythology, death is not the end of our existence: Those who die travel to Mictlan, an Aztec underworld ruled by King Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, Mictecacihuatl.

In México, Day of the Dead is celebrated with astonishing displays, both at home and at cemeteries where people gather, paying homage to loved ones who have passed. In homes, families set up altars with photos of the deceased. Ofrendas of copal incense, sugar skulls, pan de muerto, candles, water, our loved one’s favorite foods, and other beloved objects, take center stage on the altar, embellished with multicolored and fragrant cempasúchil (marigold). 

At the cemetery, families clean tombstones and place candles, bouquets of marigolds, food, and drinks around graves. One of the largest and most well-known celebrations takes place in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. It is said that the cempasúchil guides our loved ones back home with their fragrance. Those who watched Pixar’s movie ‘Coco’ may recall seeing Miguel’s loved ones crossing a bridge made out of these vibrant flowers.

For the past 25 years, Fruitvale’s Day of the Dead festival, which typically takes place the last weekend in October or first weekend in November, has been one of Oakland’s largest public gatherings. Every year, an estimated 100,000 people flock to International Boulevard and a section of East 12th Street to check out the countless ofrendas set up by community members, browse and purchase goods from the many merchants who set up shop along the festival’s stretch, listen to live music, watch traditional Aztec dance ceremonies, and patronize businesses along the Fruitvale corridor. 

Business owners spend weeks preparing for the masses. In early October, local flower shops begin receiving deliveries of bundles of marigolds. Gift shops arrange their displays with folk art typical of this time of year: sugar skulls, Catrina figurines made of clay, and papel picado (paper banners).

Our reporter’s ofrenda at home this year. One of her family members died of COVID earlier this year.
Traditional pan de muerto. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

Restaurant owners prepare their altars to show off to patrons and switch up their menus with seasonal dishes made of pumpkin, squash, and squash flowers. Bakers get busy with orders of pan de muerto, a traditional sweet bread flavored with orange, anise, sesame seeds, and sugar. The bread is an offering to our loved ones who have passed. While we are the ones who eat the bread, it’s believed that our loved ones who visit will nourish themselves with its essence.

As my siblings and I got older, attending the festival was an excuse for us to roam around and end up at one of the local restaurants to eat and drink. One year we might gather at Taquería San Jose. Another year, we’d get together at the now-shuttered The Half Orange, where some people would stare in awe at our intricate sugar skull face paintings and ask us questions about their significance.

When my grandma became wheelchair-bound, it got increasingly difficult for me to maneuver her around the radius of the festival (Fruitvale is anything but wheelchair friendly), and she would get upset at people blocking her view of the Aztec dancers. At the festival, everyone wants to be there, front and center. 

Last year was the first year in my life that I missed the festival. I had booked my vacation to the East Coast and the dates coincided. I remember telling my sister, who lives back east, how bummed out I was that my trip overlapped with Día de Los Muertos. Next year, I told my sister, I am going to choose my vacation dates carefully so I don’t miss the Fruitvale celebration.

Unfortunately, this year wasn’t meant to be either. The pandemic has hindered Day of the Dead planning for me, Fruitvale’s merchants, other residents, and visitors alike. For those of us who observe the holiday, the absence of the community gathering comes at a difficult time. Families across the country are mourning the death of loved ones due to COVID-19, including thousands of immigrant Latino families, some of whom were unable to say goodbye or properly bury loved ones who passed away in their home countries during the pandemic. 

Reporter Azucena Rasilla and her sisters heading out to the festival in 2015. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

The loss of the holiday is being especially felt here in Oakland: Latinos living in Fruitvale have been among the groups hardest hit by the pandemic. In late September, a massive two-day COVID testing event was held in the neighborhood, revealing that 11.9% of Latinx adults in Fruitvale who were tested were carrying COVID-19 antibodies, indicating that they’d been infected at some point. The number was even higher (26.8%) for Mayan immigrant adults.

The cancellation of this year’s festival also comes at a terrible time for local merchants in Fruitvale, where the pandemic has severely affected the neighborhood’s small businesses. Even as Alameda County continues easing restrictions to re-open the local economy, including indoor dining at 25 percent capacity, merchants are still struggling.

Like other popular Oakland festivals have been forced to do this year, Fruitvale’s Day of the Dead celebration will be moving online, at least to the degree that it can.

But Fruitvale has always been a community of resilience and hope. And although we won’t be gathering in person on Oakland’s streets—or for some, even at home with elders and family members—our community will carry on despite the current hardships. We will still honor our loved ones who’ve passed away, and the vibrancy of the community we are all a part of. We will still celebrate calling Oakland home.

virtual day of the dead celebrations

Learn more about this year Fruitvale’s  Día de Los Muertos festival activities:

  • The 25th annual festival has moved online. The Unity Council set up a virtual mercadito where you can shop from different vendors 
  • In partnership with Visit Oakland, there is also Fruitvale Restaurant Week where you can patronize restaurants and bakeries located in Fruitvale
  • You can also become a sponsor for next year’s festival

Oakland Museum’s El Día de Los Muertos:

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Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.