Oakland's Dia de los Muertos celebration lives on virtually to honor memory of loved ones

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Oakland's Dia de los Muertos Festival event is going virtual this year.

This year, the Dia de los Muertos festival, also known as Day of the Dead, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and organizers have decided to keep the tradition going, but from the comfort of everyone's home.

"With COVID, it wouldn't be that smart to bring that many people together," said Chris Iglesias, Chief Executive Officer of the Unity Council. "This year, around the world people have been impacted by death because of COVID and everything. A lot of people are hurting and they want to reflect."

The festival started in 1996 in the Fruitvale neighborhood with the goal of celebrating the Mexican tradition and supporting small businesses. Each year, the festival has been free to the public and has attracted 100,000 people to the celebration.

The Day of the Dead holiday typically takes place on November first through the second, but this year the festival is celebrating a month-long (Oct. 15- Nov.15) amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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"Instead of you coming to Dia (festival) we are going to bring it to you this year," said Iglesias. "We are trying to make it fun and a little more intimate because you will be at your home."

The Dia de los Muertos Festival is collaborating with Visit Oakland to host Fruitvale Restaurant Week. Participating restaurants will offer a special Dia de los Muertos menu to celebrate the holiday with traditional dishes.

A virtual marketplace known as the Muertos Mercadito is available for Dia de los Muertos vendors and consumers. Honor your loved ones and learn traditional arts and craft. Watch do-it-yourself tutorials available on the Dia de los Muertos Festival website and decorate your home.

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The Festival's main attraction are the ofrendas (altars) to remember and honor friends and family that have passed. In 2013, Lelia Olsen visited the Dia de los Muertos Festival shortly after the passing of her mother. When she discovered the altars, she knew she had to find a way to get involved. For six years, she has collected Day of the Dead memorabilia and has created elaborate altars for the festival. This is year, she is still creating an altar in her backyard.

"I appreciate it because it's not like you're celebrating their death. It is more that you are celebrating their life," said Lelia Olsen, an altar creator for Dia de los Muertos Festival. "They stay in your memory and your keeping their memory alive and you almost feel them around you all the time."

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With the cancelation of large events due to the coronavirus pandemic, organizers of large Day of the Dead celebrations in San Francisco and San Jose prepared special online events to keep the tradition alive in the Bay Area.

An altar incorporates a collection of family photos, candles, traditional flowers and food offerings. Creating an big altar takes teamwork and the Olsen family looks forward to Day of the Dead tradition every year. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Olsen would create a rough draft altar in her garage a month ahead of the festival. Olsen's children and grandchildren would help her build the altar for everyone to see.

In her altars, Olsen likes to raise awareness and honor innocent people who have lost her lives. She had a special altar for the people who lost their lives in the Sandy Hook shooting that occurred in Newton Connecticut in 2012. This year, she hopes to honor the lives of people who have died of COVID-19.

"I will probably do an altar every year until I can't," said Olsen." I look forward to it and it gives me pleasure to do it."

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