A community altar from a previous year's festival Credit: Jayasimha Nuggehalli Photography

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Oakland’s popular Día de los Muertos festival is back in person this year after going virtual in 2020 due to the pandemic. The theme is “Curando Corazones” (Healing Hearts).

In its 26th year, the festivities will take over International Boulevard between Fruitvale Avenue and 42nd Avenue. AC Transit bus lines that run along International Boulevard will be re-routed to make way for a handful of sponsor and nonprofit booths, altars, performances, and attendees. 

The festival typically includes 20 ofrendas—community altars honoring the dead that are decorated with marigold flowers, offerings of favorite foods, pan de muerto, incense—along East 12th Street and in the Fruitvale Village’s plaza. However, this year, organizers wanted to ensure enough physical distance between vendor booths, altars, and attendees, so they moved the location of the ofrendas to 35th Avenue and International Boulevard.

Itzel Diaz-Romo, senior manager of communications and external affairs for The Unity Council, told The Oaklandside that preventing the spread of COVID-19 is a priority. 

This year’s festival will not have a music stage because organizers want to prevent crowds. Instead, there will be DJs spread around the festival, pop-up music performances throughout the day, and, of course, Aztec dancers to grace the festival, dedicating their ancestral dances to the harvest, fertility, soil, fire, and water. 

Fruitvale’s Dia de los Muertos celebration normally hosts close to 300 vendors who set up in booths on the street, but organizers decided this year not to invite any actual street vendors who aren’t normally part of the Fruitvale commercial corridor, and to instead focus attention on the local brick and mortar merchants

“There were two intentions behind this decision. One was COVID safety, and the other one was also thinking of the small businesses,” Diaz-Romo said. “Our first thought was, well, let’s make sure that our businesses have a good day of sales so they can bounce back.”

Diaz-Romo said that she wants attendees to shop local and help business owners recover from the long-lasting effects of the pandemic. 

Aztec dancers performing at the festival in 2019. Credit: Jayasimha Nuggehalli Photography

Festival organizers have also re-launched “Muertos Mercadito,” an online marketplace where people can shop from participating vendors, some of whom might have had a booth at the festival in a normal year. The mercadito will be live until Nov. 5. 

Another addition to this year’s festival is a COVID-19 testing and vaccine pop-up clinic through Kaiser Permanente. Up to 252 people can receive a vaccine shot, no appointment needed, and they can get their second shot at any Kaiser location regardless of whether they are members or not. 

“We restructured the festival as a community health fair,” Diaz-Romo said. 

The Día de Los Muertos festival will take place on Sunday, Oct. 31st, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on International Boulevard between Fruitvale Avenue and 42nd Avenue.

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.