Dia de Los Muertos

Since finishing Route 66, I’ve taken some time to sit still, catch up with Carolyn, get stuff done on the vehicles (more about that another time), and figure out where to go from here (also more about that another time). Last night, we met up with her friend Reuben, an LA native, to check out the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival on Olvera Street.

Olvera Street is the main drag through El Pueblo, the original birthplace of Los Angeles in 1781, back when this area was still Mexico. After the Mexican-American War, the US stole annexed California (and much of the rest of the Southwest) from Mexico. Being a native New Englander, I’ve always learned of the east coast’s history, the original 13 colonies, separating from Britain, and all that. Before now, I’d learned nothing of west coast’s history that stretches back just as far, first with the Spanish, then Mexico before the modern American borders were established. El Pueblo was slated for demolition in the 1920s to make way for Union Station, but a preservation effort succeeded in saving the area, and moving Union Station to its current nearby location.

From the website, “Dia de los Muertos is, in fact, a celebration of life – it is not a time to mourn our loved ones, rather it is a time to remember the lives they lead and the many things they enjoyed during that life. Death is a part of life, and so we honor it.” Indeed, this is as far from a sad, somber occasion as you can get. It’s a true celebration, a happy occasion with a festive atmosphere that remembers those who are no longer with us. I really like this idea.

There is a procession down Olvera Street at 7:00 pm each night of the festival (tonight was the final night). There are also performances all over the area. I got particularly sucked in by one with music, dance, and lots of visualizations about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. My Spanish is horrible so I missed out on most of the words, but the imagery alone was quite moving.

In contrast, the Aztec dancers were quite high-energy, with drums and dancing that could probably wake the dead. I liked that one for what it was as well, being a fan of drum circles myself. It’s good to see multiple cultures represented here, rather than only the Mexican celebration.

Rueben was an amazing tour guide, telling me the history of the place, the buildings, and explaining what was going on when I didn’t know. He took us to the various vendors he knows to find champurrado, a tasty warm Mexican drink I’d never heard of but now love. We were also among the last to get the best taquitos I’ve ever had from another street vendor. Like I’ve said before, when exploring an area that’s new to you, ask a local, and take their advice. They won’t lead you astray.

The whole idea of death and rebirth and how it might relate to my own life was not lost on me. Life and death is a cycle, not a straight line with a definitive endpoint. Even if you don’t believe in heaven, reincarnation, or whatever else, it remains a fact that after you die, your body transforms into nutrients for new life to grow. As Carl Sagan said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” These elements continue to exist long after we’re gone, and eventually bring life to new beings.

“Long live life.”

I’m not quite dead yet (“I don’t want to go on the cart!”) but this cycle applies to my life as well. I’ve been through some rough times in the past few years, as well as some very good times at other points in my life. Nothing ever seems to last. From each life that falls apart around me, though, a new life always seems to form, at least as long as I keep breathing. What that life is has often been the result of circumstance, or sometimes seeing an opportunity and pursuing it.

Moving into a van and traveling is definitely the most radical change I’ve made in my life. The fire forced my hand a bit, but the groundwork was already there. I also never intended to take this journey alone, but here we are. One lesson I’ve learned is that I can take a more active role in directing my life than I thought I could. A cross-country trip was a lifelong dream of mine since I was a kid. Mission accomplished, a few short months after I no longer had to negotiate where we’d go and when we’d go there. It’s a very empowering feeling, especially as I sit here in sunny warm California while my friends back in New England buckle down for yet another cold six-month winter that I’ll be avoiding. (Sorry.)

These are the kinds of thoughts that have been running around in my head since finishing Route 66. Of course, the biggest question in my mind has been, “Where do I go from here?” I have thoughts on that too, but that’s a story for another day.

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