.San Rafael’s 34th Día de los Muertos Celebrates life, Honors Dead

San Rafael is set to throw its 34th annual Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration on Nov. 5 from 3 to 9pm with an uplifting and affirming experience for community members from all walks of life.

Día de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican and Central American holiday that is celebrated with families coming together to honor the lives of their ancestors and family members who have passed. It is a day of bright colors, festive spirits, a wide array of dances, customary costuming and face paint, and, of course, remembering with good cheer the lives of those who are no longer living. 

“You will find a very welcoming, safe and festive environment where people can enjoy art workshops, live music, culture, a procession through the community and much more,” said Douglas Mundo, executive director of San Rafael’s Día de los Muertos organizing committee. “Día de los Muertos is my favorite holiday, and I love to celebrate it with my family, friends and community.”

Día de los Muertos is typically celebrated with three major symbols. The first is brightly decorated sugar skulls, often left along with toys as offerings to children who have passed. Secondly are marigold flowers to decorate ofrendas (altars) and graves. The flowers’ vibrant colors and strong scent is used to assist the dead in navigating to and from their graves to the family home. 

And lastly, butterflies are a huge symbol for Día de los Muertos celebrations. They are said to hold the spirits of the departed, especially since the migration pattern of the Monarch butterflies coincides with early November, when Día de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated.

“I want to make sure that people understand that Día de los Muertos is not Mexican Halloween. It is a sacred time of healing to remember those who have passed away and for family to remember our ancestors. It’s a time to celebrate life in a different way; it’s a happy event. We want people to understand this and dress appropriately. 

“For those who are not part of our culture, I ask for respect, understanding and education about what Día de los Muertos means. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can always ask! In order to keep our traditions alive, we want to keep it traditional.”

This free-to-attend celebration takes place in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael and includes art workshops for children, live music (multiple performers), cultural performances, altar viewing, a walking procession through the neighborhood and traditional food available for purchase. Over a dozen altars in downtown business windows and 22 altars at the event will be displayed, during the month of October and through the first week of November.

“Day of the Dead has been a healing, humanizing coming-together of the community in San Rafael for 34 years now,” said Catherine John, coordinator for the Día de los Muertos organizing committee. “People of many backgrounds and walks of life gather to pay their respects to those we’ve lost and celebrate being together in community. It is a beautiful, upbeat, colorful celebration, and one which has come to characterize San Rafael over the years. Art, music, food and altars are all provided by locals, and we welcome visitors from near and far. 

“Thanks to a tireless committee of volunteers, we were able to keep our celebration going in a semi-virtual format during the pandemic year of 2020, and in 2021 we resumed our in-person one-day event with full attendance. We look forward to keeping this tradition alive for many years to come.”

During COVID, when Día de los Muertos could not be hosted as an in-person event, the organizing committee held a COVID-friendly car procession through the Canal neighborhood and partnered with altar makers in downtown San Rafael businesses so that the community could view the altars in store windows at their leisure while social distancing. The organizing committee has decided to continue with some of these modifications by adding them to the traditional celebration. 

On Saturday, Oct. 22 at 3pm, the car procession will depart from City Hall and travel through downtown San Rafael, after which a car show and community gathering will take place at the Multicultural Center of Marin, 709 5th Ave. Community members are invited to decorate their cars and trucks and cruise along with the procession.

Altar viewing and food sales will take place throughout the entire celebration from 3 to 9pm, art workshops in the multipurpose room from 3 to 5pm, Pan Rafael (Steel Pans) in the lobby from 3 to 4pm, Enriching Lives through Music in the gymnasium from 4 to 5pm, Cascada de Flores in the gymnasium from 5 to 7pm and an outdoor procession from 6 to 7pm. Cultural performances from Danza Azteca Mixcoatl and Ballet Folklórico Netzahualcoyotl will take place in the gymnasium from 7 to 7:30pm, and a community dance with Sang Matiz will be held in the multipurpose room from 7:30 to 9:30pm.

“We end the celebration with a community dance,” said Mundo. “During the day full of Día de los Muertos activities, at least 2,000 people come through, plus those who are reached through the procession. It’s amazing to see how the community comes together to celebrate Día de los Muertos with us.”

Those who wish to get involved with the Día de los Muertos organizing committee are welcome to reach out and offer their assistance. Planning for this event begins in February every year, and a great deal of time, care and consideration is put towards hosting this annual celebration of life, family and community.

“I’m ready to pass the torch to the new generation and am calling out to the younger generation to join us and continue the celebration for years to come,” Mundo said. “For the last 34 years, this event has been free to the community, and we plan to keep it that way.”

Parking for San Rafael’s 34th annual Día de los Muertos celebration is available at Pickleweed Park. The Multicultural Center of Marin will be running a continuous free shuttle service between the Marin Health and Wellness Campus (3240 Kerner Blvd.) and the Boro Center from 3 to 9:30pm. Parking at the Health and Wellness Campus is free and time-unlimited.

The Día de los Muertos organizing committee thanks their lead sponsors, the Marin Community Foundation and Sol Food, for making this event possible. For more information, visit dayofthedeadsr.org.

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