LOS ANGELES — Many people wouldn’t be caught dead trying to get into a cemetery, but the line to get into Hollywood Forever stretched three blocks on Saturday night.
It wasn’t a funeral that brought them. Rather it was a Diá de Muertos event — or Day of the Dead — that attracted upward of an estimated 30,000 people to the resting place of film legends Judy Garland, Rudolph Valentino and Cecil B. DeMille.
The 20-year-old event is one of the largest Diá de Muertos celebrations in the U.S., but this year fire officials were dispatched to the festivities after far more people showed up than the normally bucolic patch of greenery only blocks from famous Hollywood movie studios could handle.
The centuries-old Mexican holiday honoring the dead has received a boost not only from playing a prominent role in the plot of the Pixar Animation Studios film “Coco” when it was released in 2017, but also for the colorful photos of candles, marigolds and decorated altars the day can generate for social media.
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But for some critics, the overflow crowd at Hollywood Forever suggests Diá de Muertos has become more than a dignified occasion to honor departed loved ones. Rather, it could become another Mexican ritual that has been Americanized into an excuse for a party, complete with face painting, sugar skulls, folk art and celebration.
Though Melissa Campana of Los Angeles bought her $30 ticket to the cemetery event in advance, she never made it inside. She said she waited in line for about one hour, 40 minutes, then “threw in the towel.” She said it was a stark contrast to a year ago when she breezed inside in about 10 minutes.
This time, “the fire marshal was refusing to let anyone in,” Campana said. “This year it seemed like they oversold the tickets.”
Lizette Farias, who lives in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, came earlier and made it in, but found the event to be so crowded that it was hard to have an enjoyable time. The line for tacos alone was 90 minutes.
The event featured costumed participants, elaborately decorated graves and the popular Mexican music group Cafe Tacuba, which apparently induced many visitors to stay longer than they normally would. The band was the reason why Farias said she stretched her visit to four hours — though she said she left without seeing it.
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Cemetery executives say they were simply overwhelmed.
“We didn’t estimate the number of people who would come in,” said Tyler Cassity, president of Hollywood Forever and co-founder of the event. “We never experienced that in 20 years.”
In fact, Cassity said, attendance had been flat or down for the past couple of years. Bringing a popular band was a way of reversing the trend. But what he said the staff hadn’t taken into account that baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers weren’t in the World Series this year, which meant more people prowling for something interesting to do over the weekend. He said about 500 tickets were refunded to those who couldn’t get in.
Cassity said his staff will meet with the fire marshal’s office and make changes to try to ensure that the event doesn’t become overcrowded next year.
“We want everyone to have a positive experience. We feel very badly about the calls and letters we are receiving,” he said.
While Diá de Muertos is a celebration, Cassity said the cemetery had a more traditional day to honor the deceased on All Saints Day, which fell this year on Friday, with a Catholic ceremony and mariachis to serenade the departed.
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Diá de Muertos has not only become more popular in the U.S., but also in its homeland of Mexico, where it is marked by parades and other celebrations, said Rafael Fernández de Castro, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
It marks “a new synthesis of Halloween and Diá de Muertos” that helps meld the cultures of the U.S. and Mexico. Remembering your ancestors is “a beautiful tradition,” de Castro said.
But not everyone sees Diá de Muertos as a day for mass celebration. Areli Morales of Long Beach, California, tweeted last week that the day is “is a sacred practice for us. I don’t paint my face, I’ve never been to Hollywood Forever. These days are for family, we drink, we eat, tell stories that keep our loved ones alive. I watched my grandma die last year I wrote this to honor her and our traditions.”
Morales said people are increasingly treating the day like Cinco de Mayo, another commercialized way to celebrate Mexican heritage. The holiday is about “obligations to our ancestors, not costumes,” she said Monday.
“An appreciation of death and life is valuable,” she added. “I just wish to remind people that this goes deeper than a day or celebration. These practices have kept our culture alive for thousands of years. Please appreciate that, don’t appropriate.”