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A party for the dearly departed: where to celebrate Dia de los Muertos

Mexican songstress Lila Downs
Mexican songstress Lila Downs stops by San Diego on Oct. 13.
(Marcela Taboada)

A guide to Day of the Dead events in San Diego

Bring on the sugar skulls, marigolds and mariachi — it’s Dia de los Muertos season. The Mexican holiday, also known as Day of the Dead, is an annual tradition honoring the lives of loved ones who have passed away.

Even though Dia de los Muertos forces you to think about death, the holiday is actually a joyful celebration that happens throughout Mexico. And over the last decade, the tradition has made its way to this side of the border through celebrations, film and music. There’s even a new Day of the Dead Barbie doll, complete with a floral dress and painted face.

On Dia de los Muertos, you create ofrendas (altars) with photos and other keepsakes of family and friends who have died. Gifts, like food and drinks they loved, and the traditional marigolds are placed on these ofrendas. Meanwhile, living relatives celebrate with calavera (skull) face painting, arts and crafts, live music, dancing and other activities.

While the holiday technically happens Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, festivities start early in San Diego. From concerts to bread-baking, here are events to celebrate Dia de los Muertos.

10.13: La Jolla Music Society presents Lila Downs

Mexican songstress Lila Downs kicks off Dia de los Muertos early with a themed performance.

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Downs, a Grammy Award-winning artist, epitomizes the Mexican spirit. If her name sounds familiar, you may know her voice from the soundtrack of the popular film Frida. The singer is also known for her political activism. She matches bold, thought-provoking lyrics with her signature style, characterized by vibrant, colorful clothing.

Now the Oaxaca, Mexico, native brings her Al Chile tour to downtown, a show named after her most recent album. The evening is a collaborative union of music, dance and tradition, which also features Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company and Mariachi Femenil Flores Mexicanas. Audience members are encouraged to dress up in traditional garb and makeup to celebrate the occasion.

7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13. Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., downtown. $28 to $78; 619.570.1100, sandiegotheatres.org

10.26: Artelexia’s Day of the Dead Festival

Situated in trendy North Park, Artelexia is a vibrant retail shop specializing in Mexican gifts, décor and other goods. The shop, which is no stranger to hosting cultural workshops and events, will bring back its Day of the Dead festival for a third year. The “colorful celebration” honors tradition with a community altar, face painting and sugar skull decorating, along with a tequila/mezcal tasting and cerveza cantina.

11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Artelexia, 3803 Ray St., North Park. Free; artelexia.com

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North Park Day of the Dead Festival 1.jpg
Attendees enjoying Artelexia’s Day of the Dead Festival in North Park.
(Chadd Cady)

10.26: 25th annual Sherman Heights Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos

Billed as San Diego’s oldest Day of the Dead celebration, this annual Sherman Heights event has everything you’d expect: indoor and outdoor altars, food, vendors, live entertainment, art and more. Go on a self-guided tour of the outdoor altars in the historic neighborhood before partaking in all things Dia de los Muertos. There’s a daylong celebration — Muertos Festival — on Oct. 26, but other events are planned through Nov. 2.

11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Sherman Heights Community Center, 2258 Island Ave., San Diego. shermanheights.com/day-of-the-dead.html

10.26: San Diego Symphony presents Coco in concert

If you haven’t seen the Oscar-winning Coco yet – or if you are a huge fan – experience the animated film with live accompaniment by the San Diego Symphony. Disney Pixar’s movie celebrates Mexican culture, tradition and ancestry (and features local theater actor Herbert Siguenza as the voice of the late twin uncles). The screening will also feature Coco’s original soundtrack guitarist, Federico Ramos.

2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B St., downtown. $29 to $86; 619.235.0804, sandiegosymphony.org

10.27: ‘Dia’ at The Mission

The Old Mission San Luis Rey invites you to spend your “dia,” or day, in Oceanside. Now in its 19th year, this festival features altars, a chalk cemetery and the Por Siempre Car Show. A stage also hosts live entertainment, including bands and ballet folklorico, and Old Mission Elementary Mariachis.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27. Mission San Luis Rey, 4050 Mission Ave., Oceanside. $2; mslrdiadelosmuertos.com

10.28: Bread Baking Workshop at WorldBeat Center

Want to bring offerings to the altars, but don’t know how to bake? A culinary workshop at the WorldBeat Cultural Center teaches you how to make the traditional Day of the Dead bread: Pan de Muertos. Learn the culinary basics with returning instructor Mary Lou Valencia. Check the website for ticket prices.

6 to 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28. WorldBeat Cultural Center, 2100 Park Blvd., Balboa Park. worldbeatcenter.org

11.1-2: Building altars for queer Latinx artists at San Diego Art Institute

For a hands-on approach to the holiday, San Diego Art Institute will build creative ofrendas dedicated to three late artists from its Forging Territories: Queer Afro and Latinx Contemporary Art exhibition who are no longer living. These unique altars honor their artistic and cultural contributions, keeping their memory alive. As you work, you will be treated to traditional Mexican pastries and drinks.

Event begins at noon Friday, Nov. 1, and will be up through 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2. San Diego Art Institute, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park. Free; 619.236.0011; sandiego-art.org

11.2-11.3: Dia de los Muertos in Old Town

Arguably the most robust Day of the Dead event in San Diego, Old Town’s two-day celebration spans the entire historic neighborhood. The park plaza is packed with entertainment options like sugar skull workshops, ballet folklorico, live music and a beer garden. And don’t miss out on the iconic Dia de los Muertos face painting experience, which is offered at a dozen locations.

The surrounding businesses will also have holiday specials, shows and unique ofrendas. Find more than 40 throughout the neighborhood during the weekend’s “Tour of Altars.” There will also be a community candlelight procession through the streets of Old Town at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2.

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10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, and 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3. Old Town State Historic Park, 4002 Wallace St., Old Town. Free; dayofthedeadsd.com


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