A young Mexican man and woman leave the offices of Suavecito Pomade in Santa Ana decorated with skeletal face paint. They hop into a company van headed to a spooky house in the city for a photo shoot–not for Día de los Muertos, but Halloween. Just then, Rudy Cordova, a sales rep for the hair-product company, walks in with posters and flyers in hand for Viva La Vida, a Day of the Dead festival happening at the Santa Ana Train Station a week before downtown's Noche de Altares, OC's biggest such celebration.
Cordova, who co-owned iconic Santa Ana storefronts Calacas and Café Calacas before closing the former and selling off much of the latter, sits at a conference room table ready to talk about his new venture. He has years of experience alongside El Centro Cultural de Mexico in helping turn Noche de Altares into a mega-street festival with multiple street closures. But this year is the first time he's striking out on his own after leaving the Centro partnership in March, creating confusion among the city's Día de los Muertos lovers about what's going on.
"Do I call it quits and move on from Noche de Altares?" Cordova says he asked himself after the split, "Or do I create something new because I enjoy and love it?" The bearded businessman brings connections with vendors and cultural groups with him in presenting Viva La Vida on Sunday. "It could have been about altares or death, but in reality, I wanted a name that was more of a celebration," Cordova says. The all-day event fuses Mexican traditions, like ballet folklórico from Relámpago del Cielo, with Chicano ones, a generational shift reflected by featuring rock acts like My Machete and El Haru Kuroi.
"We try to learn as much as we can of how Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico, but we have our things here, be it lowriders or a little more modern rock music," Cordova says of his twist on the event. "I'm sure the traditionalists are probably going to be quick to call out on it, but this is my reality."
Later that same day, Cordova's former Noche de Altares colleagues meet at el Centro to continue the event on November 7 without him. "I'm kind of stressed but excited!" volunteer Theresa Dang exclaims. A packed agenda for the annual Día de los Muertos street festival in downtown Santa Ana is scrawled on a white marker board. Santa Ana teacher Benjamin Vazquez guides the unpaid, all-volunteer group through a frantic but fluid consensus-based two-hour meeting tackling everything from logistics to entertainment.
"Noche de Altares started from being four altars and 400 people to over 100 altars and what we believe is 40,000 people," Vazquez says after wrapping the meeting. "The reason it's so huge is because the community does participate in it. People come for the authenticity of the event."
Aztec dancers give a blessing to start it off. The group doesn't allow altars to pets or iconic figures like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley in respect to the Indigenous-rooted centuries-old Mexican tradition. A procession led by La Catrina, a skeletal dame of death, carries a candle lighting all of the over 100 altars at evening time, with strumming jaraneros from Son del Centro following.
"We consider this a political event," Vazquez says of the cultural celebration. This year's branding puts an emphasis on "Calle Cuatro," the popular moniker for Fourth Street, where gentrification battles rage in Santa Ana. "Our theme was intentionally 'La Cuatro,' as this defines who we are," he adds.
"Year after year, we make tough decisions that are based on our political values and we turn down thousands–some years tens of thousands of dollars–because it is tied to other work or missions that are anti-community," says Dang.
Both Cordova and Noche de Altares volunteers are cordial about the split. Neither side claims to be competing against each other. Things might have been less kind, though, if Viva La Vida secured the Downtown Inc. sponsorship Cordova sought this summer. Santa Ana artist Alicia Rojas attended the downtown business promoting group's board meeting on June 24, originally to talk about a community mural project when she inadvertently diffused a bomb. Viva La Vida came up on the agenda for members to vote on. It was the first Rojas had heard of the Day of the Dead split. She raised her hand and felt compelled to speak out lest downtown become even more polarized.
"My advice was that they should not get involved," Rojas tells the Weekly. "Downtown Inc. and el Centro have had such a difficult relationship because of what happened to el Centro and their space." Back in 2011, despite making all rent payments on time, the nonprofit got evicted from their Knights of Pythias home off Fifth Street and Broadway in downtown. Irv Chase, who transformed the "Fiesta Marketplace" into a gentrified "East End" promenade, had an informal role and a familial relationship in the property owning company giving them the boot. Ryan Chase, Irv's son, is president of Downtown Inc. When Cordova and el Centro teamed together to organize Noche de Altares the year after, Downtown Inc. offered sponsorship money that Noche de Altares volunteers rejected over Cordova's wishes.
"This could be seen as an appropriation of culture," Rojas warned the board. "If you are really trying to bridge the gap now, the best thing you can do is respectfully say no to this sponsorship." Her plea persuaded Ryan Chase, who cast a "no" vote along with others not wanting to offend el Centro. "The board didn't want to get into the confusion of the two [Day of the Dead] events," Chase writes the Weekly in an email. "In addition [we] wanted to focus our support for event[s] within the Downtown as our funding is limited and paid by local businesses within the Downtown core."
Cordova sees Viva La Vida as the little guy in town with a smaller venue, budget, staff and expected turnout. Suavecito backs his vision and the event secured an agreement with Amtrak to drop people right off at the event itself. "The city was super excited about it," Cordova says of Viva La Vida's host. "There's a lot of empty venues in that location which if we create a buzz and start having more events, hopefully those leases will be taken up and more business will move over there."
Maybe the event will grow to be as big as Noche de Altares, Cordova muses, but not anytime soon. Though he's excited to branch off on his own, going solo isn't without its growing pains. "My family was very sad that we had moved on from it after so many years of putting Noche de Altares together," he says. "It just came down to the feelings that it was never really our event. That really hurt us."
Across town, there is a similar lament over Calacas and el Centro parting ways. "We had been working with Calacas on Day of the Dead for nine years," Vazquez says. "I was saddened that Rudy had left. He's like a brother to me." When plans for Viva La Vida emerged, Vazquez was taken aside at first, but there's a sense of peaceful coexistence for now. "Rudy's going to have a great event, but it's not going to be what we do here at Centro," he says.
Vazquez plans on going to Viva La Vida on Sunday. Cordova isn't ruling out to the idea of heading to Noche de Altares next weekend for the first time as a regular Santanero among the multitude and not an organizer.
Either way, Santa Ana is big enough for two Day of the Dead street festivals, in Cordova's mind. "There's enough room in the city for two or three events," he says. "Santa Ana is the biggest Latino community in Orange County. Why wouldn't it be big enough?"
Viva la Vida at the Santa Ana Train Station, 1100 E. Santa Ana Blvd, Santa Ana. Sun., 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Free. All ages. 13th Annual Noche de Altares on the corner of Fourth and Birch Street, Sat., Nov. 7. 1 p.m.- 10 p.m. Free. All ages.