Just a day shy of Friday the 13th, the 13th annual Velorio, a celebration of Mexico’s Day of the Dead was observed and celebrated in Lincoln Park’s La Plaza de la Raza, the name for the plaza that is very fitting for the event. The music, art, vendors, food, and exhibitions were put together by and for La Raza and for the diverse Los Angeles crowd that attended that evening.
Throughout the event, women dressed as Catrinas, the iconic Day of the Dead feminine skeleton adorned in ornate flowers and dresses, wafted through the event like wisps of copal, a Mexican incense associated with the festivities that are burned on the marigold-laden altars commemorating and honoring the ancestor of those observing the celebrations.
Aside from the festive iconography of this Mexican holiday, much of the imagery found throughout the event also reflected the home of those partaking in the evening’s celebrations; At the entrance, there were rows of motorcycles and lowriders that could easily be on the cover of any automotive magazine. Symbols of LA ranging from Dodgers logos to Lakers and Kobe Bryant imagery were juxtaposed with marigolds and catrinas, an indicator of a blend of two cultures and a representation of the Mexican diaspora of Los Angeles.
The first event of the evening was the display of the Aztec Dancers. The Aztec dancers take over the stage at the foot of towering catrina statues, a melange of past and present interpretations of heritage. Thunderous and mesmerizing drumbeats filled the night air and became a collective heartbeat of those in the audience as everyone locked their gazes into dozens of dancers, some with headdresses embellished with colorful plumage while some were face painted and wearing ancestral-inspired garb and textiles. It was an exuberant interpretation of honor and heritage for those partaking and for those in attendance.
Meanwhile, in the VIP area, tables were set up with those with wristbands to taste the various flavors of Mexico. Tequila and Mezcal brands were present and handing out sample portions of their expressions. In the realm of tequila, Tequila 13 and Casa Mexico handed out expressions of their Blanco, reposado, and añejos with their enthusiastic representatives eager to talk about their history and methods of production. But the show-stopper in attendance was Salvadores Mezcal, with over 8 types of expressions ranging from several species of agave (tepextate, tobala, espadin, etc) and a phenomenal pechuga de cafe (a style of mezcal distilled with coffee beans that impart part of its flavor). Salvador and his wife Flor refilled tiny plastic tasting cups and went over their descriptions over and over, winning everyone over with their brand.
The other non-alcoholic booths in attendance were Aguas Locas, an aguas frescas brand made in LA using 100% natural ingredients, bottled and found in many markets and eateries throughout the city. Featuring 4 flavors, some of the favorites of the evening were the Melon con Menta, a Cantaloupe and Mint agua fresca, and their Jamaica, a hibiscus-based drink flavored with cinnamon and mint. All of their aguas are sweetened with agave to promote more of a health-conscious refreshment.
Guisados La Morenitan was also at a booth and featured 3 distinct styles of guisados, traditional Mexican dishes that are somewhere between a stew, a stir fry, and delectable dishes drenched in salsas and spices that were served with totopos (tortilla chips) or with pieces of bolillo (bread rolls) to sop up all of the savory goodness. It was no surprise to see that their food ran out throughout the evening.
Returning to the general public, there were a variety of foods available as well. Northgate Market, one of the sponsors of the Velorio, had a booth set up and sold tamales and snacks such as guacamole and chips, pan de muerto, and champurrado-several kinds of traditional bites to add to the “Dias” atmosphere. Several booths also featured Mexican-styled candies laden with chile, chamoy, and imagery reminiscent of the festivities.
The second event on the main stage was a fashion show hosted by face-painted public figure Ancient Face. Different models in extravagant and lavish dresses decorated with Mexican themes came up on stage one by one, each one putting on a mini show revolving around a dance or their selected theme. Some of the models were dressed as Adelitas, the women fighters of the Mexican Revolution, Catrinas, Selena, and even in a goth-themed attire dancing to The Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck”, popularized by Netflix’s show “Wednesday”.
Walking towards the art gallery that was put together by Antonio Pelayo Productions, also behind the entire Velorio event, one notices the Aztec dancers still adorned in their ceremonial garb walking in between spectators and the artwork yet nobody bats an eye. It is a part of the atmosphere. The gallery itself was a Tribute to Fallen Female icons and curated by Antonio and Isaac Pelayo, where all proceeds from the artwork sold went to the Pelayo Foundation, which aims to “[support] artist growth and creative expansion, fosters societal enrichment through art, and promotes dialogue.”
Within the gallery, the walls were lined with art that was painted onto coffin-shaped canvas or pieces of wood. Though the majority of the iconography were images of Latina legends and heroines such as Maria Felix Selena, other pieces were focused on other famous and deceased women such as Sinhead O’Connor, Marylin Monro, Vampira, and various other figures and characters reminiscent of the Chicano influence and pop culture.
Adjacent to the gallery was a second dance floor with a booming DJ playing salsa, cumbia, and towards the end of the night, West Coast hip-hop classics and EDM, making the event feel like a house party that kept guests in attendance dancing way until the end of the evening. Next to the dance floor was another room in which more vendors were found offering a wide array of services such as face painting, palm and tarot card reading, and custom shoes lined with textiles from independent designers from Chiapas.
Back on the main stage and dancefloor, La Diabla, a 5 piece “Cumbia Punk” band from the border (San Diego and Tijuana) hopped onstage and played rhythmic and energetic cumbias that got everyone spectating, dancing, and moving. Families danced amongst themselves in circles and some of the Aztec dancers danced in between families and friends. To see the juxtaposition of these dancers and men in sombreros that could pass as somebody’s tio (uncle) embodied the meaning of what this event was all about: community.
The final performance of the evening was performed by the Chicano rapper DeCalifornia, whose performance was just as evocative and reminiscent of the population in attendance. He rapped in both Spanish and English, bringing two cultures into one with his verses and poetry. One of the guys onstage waves a giant Mexican flag, and the kicker was one of his last songs that sampled Los Apsons “en un cafe” which engaged not just people born in LA and in Mexico but those across generations as well.
Although a velorio, the namesake of this event, is an event in Mexico where the dead are remembered and mourned for several days prior to being buried or cremated, this event felt anything but mournful. It was an event that felt very fitting for the city of Los Angeles. To see an event that was brought together and made for the community to help commemorate not just the ancestors but to help maintain these traditions alive felt like, in a way, an act in itself to commemorate ancestry and heritage.