author photo
Siobhan Warwicker
10/22/2020

America may still be off-limits for international travellers, but as Halloween approaches, Siobhan Warwicker recalls her experience of exuberant Mexican festivities in San Diego last year.

Day of the Dead in San Diego

In the midday San Diego sun, down a Victorian brick row of the Gaslamp Quarter, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has not just returned from her grave, but multiplied. Unmistakable monobrows are set beneath profusions of flowers crowning braided hair, boots clacking and skirts rustling as they walk. Behind me, one Frida is deep in conversation with a Vincent van Gogh, complete with bloody bandage covering one ear.

Aside from the obvious appeal of dressing up as one of history’s most flamboyant painters, this cross-cultural meeting is also a very San Diego Halloween. While California’s heritage traces back to European settlers, the Golden State, of which San Diego is the southernmost city, was once part of Mexico. A treaty following the mid-1840s Mexican-American War forced Mexico to give up its northern territories, then even more land was bought in 1854.

Commuters and day-trippers stream back and forth across the border. Hispanic culture is alive in America’s south and Americanisms trickling into Mexico’s border towns, the two intertwined like Kahlo’s floral-adorned braids.

Mexican calavera in San Diego old town © Alexandre Mottet/Shutterstock

So, while body-sculpted Californians wearing lingerie queue for a Halloween party at the huge ballroom of my downtown hotel, The Guild, close by others prepare for a very different experience: Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead.

In the days leading up to November 2nd, a blanket of orange marigold flowerheads sweeps through the Mexican communities of San Diego in shrines to the dead. It’s more than an act of remembrance: for Mexicans, this guides the spirits of loved ones back to the land of the living for this annual celebration.

The best place to see these displays is the Barrio Logan district’s Chicano Park, which turned fifty this year. Framed photographs of the deceased smile at each other in their frozen poses, presiding over their mini empires of candles and incense among the sea of flowers. To further tempt the spirits are a few of their favourite things: cans of Red Stripe lager for one, bunches of bananas for another.

It’s so vibrant and moving, you almost forget about the noisy flyover above your head. The construction of this brutal freeway right over the community in 1969, razing homes and plunging it into the shadows, symbolizes oppression of the immigrant community. This was a population who felt neither welcome here nor in Mexico, so, they began to protest with art. Today, murals cover every slab of concrete in the eight-acre space, the largest concentration of Chicano (Americans of Mexican descent) murals in the States.

Like its big brother LA, a three-hour train ride away, San Diego is a sun-blessed place synonymous with golden beaches and surfer dudes. However, youth, diversity and artistic heritage have given San Diego an edge, and it’s fast becoming one of the coolest cities in America. It’s also walkable, divided up into distinct areas such as Barrio Logan, La Jolla, Little Italy, the world-renowned museum and gallery hub Balboa Park, and another district with a big Mexican population, North Park.

In this trendy neighbourhood, a touch of gentrification has merged with Mexican culture, colourful gift and design shops popping up around late-night burrito drive-thrus. Hipsters dress their tiny dogs for Halloween: one Chihuahua looks vaguely embarrassed about his pirate hat.

San Diego Old Town, Cafe Coyote © John Bahu

But I can’t come this close to Mexico without crossing the border, so 20 miles from downtown the next day, I meet a guide beneath the TO MEXICO lettering. Dressed in full white charro costume, he bounds out from the crowd of the workers and American dental-care tourists. Derek, who runs Turista Libre, “Free Tourist”, is an American who runs tours to help you get under the skin of the beautiful, batty, border city Tijuana.

Of Tijuana’s 1.5 million population, more than half the people are not from here. “Mexicans are born wherever the hell we want!,” says Derek. “Everyone’s welcome if you come with an open heart.”’ “Yes, we are all mixed race here,” adds his Mexican co-host Alejandro.

Aboard a graffitied American school bus, our group trundles off into this parallel world as paper skull bunting wafts in the warm air. We can practically see America, yet Mexico seems hotter, dustier. Construction projects and giant cacti dwindle into rickety rows of shops and craft-beer terraces, including the Mamut Brewery, where people are eagerly playing Loteria (Mexican bingo). Toppling stacks of marigolds to be sold is a reminder of the widespread importance of this time of year.

Over the Day of the Dead period, families clean and decorate their relatives’ graves before celebrating on-site – the tradition from which the San Diego street shrines originates. In Mexico, the last, most definitive phase of death is when we are forgotten, so marigolds are placed on the old, abandoned graves of strangers, too.

Chicano Park Art, San Diego © Candice Eley/SanDiego.org

It might all sound morbid, but pageantry and humour make this more surreal than sombre. At the White Door Cemetery, a corpse-widow sings soprano to the accompaniment of a skeleton Spanish guitar player. Arms outstretched, she warbles to the sky and then staggers through graves, black veil gathered in her hands, pausing to dance flamenco-style with the skeleton musician. Derek whispers some translations: “She’s saying, ‘what is there to be sad about anyway? Dying’s just part of the journey.’”

On my final evening in San Diego, the build-up of Day of the Dead accumulates with a festival in Old Town State Historic Park, when it’s flooded with gothic corpse men wearing suits and women in sugar-skull face paint.

When the 2015 James Bond film Spectre opened with a fictional Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, it sparked the Mexican government to arrange one annually. Here in San Diego, this one’s been going for a decade. Terrifying characters on stilts lunge past, between infant dancers dressed in Mexican lace.

Under the blue glow of the Californian twilight, a slow march begins. It is a procession over the graves that this street was built upon, the sites of bones marked on the ground by brass plaques.

There’s no chance of the Old Town’s spirits missing their annual call to the land of flesh and blood. Surrounding the final destination of the little El Campo Santo Cemetery, everyone is on a high, from chocolatey-mouthed children tucking into churros, to taco and mezcal restaurants doing a roaring trade.

As the singing corpse told us, there’s nothing to be sad about for Mexicans. Instead of fearing death, they embrace it. Whether it be a graveyard in Mexico, or beneath a flyover in a suburb of San Diego, they know they will be reunited for music and mezcal, once a year.

The details

This trip was sponsored by the recommended partners below.

British Airways flies direct from London to San Diego from £733 return, ba.com/sandiego. King Rooms at The Guild Hotel cost from £189, theguildhotel.com. Tours to Mexico at turistalibre.com. For more information on San Diego visit sandiego.org.

Top image: Mexican calavera in San Diego old town © Alexandre Mottet/Shutterstock

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