How Eric Velasco's Cempasuchil Workshops Keep Alive the Roots of Dia De Los Muertos in OC

There's a certain twinkle in Eric Velasco's eye whenever he's discussing anything plant-related to a novice gardener. Like anyone with a green thumb, he's an early riser; and even with his advanced age he's retained a sharp mind, plenty of patience and a bubbly personality. It's this sociableness that has lent itself to his belief in gardening as a shared experience, and is his secret to his business success. “I have a way of treating people well, I have workers who have stayed with me for 36 years,” Velasco says. “I think the person who doesn't speak doesn't progress.”

For the last couple of years, Velasco has taught Orange County the secrets of growing their own cempasuchil, or marigold flowers, for their respective Dia De Los Muertos altars. His lessons come in the form of workshops hosted by the SanTana-based Centro Cultural de Mexico, which holds numerous workshops every week leading up to their annual Dia De Los Muertos event, Noche de Altares. The first such workshop for growing cempasuchil began in July, when the first seeds were planted.

For Velasco, teaching others how to grow cempasuchil is an extension of keeping up with the traditions of the holiday. Cempasuchil have been used for centuries, originally since the age of the Aztecs. The word itself stems from the Nahuatl zempoalxochitl, which roughly translates to “twenty flower,” which refers to the numerous flower petals coming out of it. Symbolically, the flower represents the fragility of life and the mortal body's return to the Earth.

Velasco, who originally hails from Oaxaca, developed a talent for growing these flowers and other vegetables since his youth and has been farming for the greater part of his life. Now, after having owned multiple successful vegetable businesses in Mexico and in the States, he's very open and giving with his knowledge and expertise on farming tips for willing students. Velasco still owns his own terrain in Oaxaca where he grows crops and cempasuchil, and often returns every few months to bring back more of his cempasuchil seeds to grow.

He began his workshops at El Centro after a family member referred him as an expert grower of cempasuchil to El Centro co-founder Socorro Sarmiento, so Velasco's lessons naturally became part of the curriculum of weekly workshops offered free to the community. Besides upholding tradition of using the flower in DDLM altars, Sarmiento believes the cempasuchil workshops directly benefit the community by showing people how to grow their own plants instead of having to buy them from big companies, or alternatively to sell them for profit. “It gives people a sense of satisfaction; people like Eric are growing, teaching, learning and are making money on their own,” Sarmiento says. 

“Here, a large pot of cempasuchil are sold for $10, while at Home Depot they cost about $15, and are probably lesser quality,” Velasco says. “But because [ours] are made from cooperation and teamwork,  they're so much prettier.”

From one of his workshops, Velasco met and connected with volunteer Abel Ruiz, who discussed with him the prospect of beginning a community garden. Earlier this year, they along with colleagues Hugo Sanchez Nava, Nancy Alcala, Carmen Cortez and fellow volunteers stumbled on the forgotten garden behind First Congressional Church in SanTana and were able to rescue it from abandonment and disrepair. Here, Velasco and other volunteers held their hands-on workshops for El Centro and labored to plant, tend and transplant the cempasuchil, which you can currently buy direct from El Centro for your own DDLM altar needs.

Bigger plans for more vegetables are in the works, while the members of the garden collective work to form a more solidified identity. In the meantime, Velasco is looking forward to representing Oaxaca for his DDLM altar this Saturday, where other families will present altars for their respective Mexican states—Morelos, Michoacan, San Luis Potosi, and others—and continue to preserve the intent of holiday celebration. “The primary goal is to stick to tradition; I'm working to conserve the [cempasuchil] seed, to improve on it and invest a little time in its growth,” Velasco says. “The end product is worth it.”

To buy your cempasuchil flowers, please visit El Centro Cultural de Mexico at 313 N. Birch St., Santa Ana, or visit the El Centro Facebook page for sale updates. Noche de Altares takes place in Downtown Santa Ana Saturday, Nov. 5, from noon-10 p.m. For more info, go to

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