“¿Ya terminaron con la música? Vine pa’ bailar” The words leapt off the chapped lips of the abuelita who had just strolled up to the Pink Elephant Center wall facing…
I heard it in the frantic shout of a little boy yelling at his mother to slow the car down. In the reflection of his eyes you could see a beautifully adorned Aztec dancer strolling down the avenue with a tamal in one hand, and a cup of Portuguese beef stew in the other. A few feet from her, a group of hula dancers were busy biting into pieces of pan dulce, spewing crumbs across the concrete when one of their friends, a fella with machetes in his hand and a red sash across his chest, made them laugh out loud.
He and his mother had just driven over Highway 101, and descended down Alum Rock Avenue, unaware that they had stumbled into the School of Arts and Cultures’ inaugural Avenida de Altares community celebration.
Hundreds of folks, families and millennials alike, had met at the corner of the Alum Rock and King, beneath the Mexican Heritage Plaza’s northwest tower, which the Celebrate Mayfair team had bathed in lights of green, pink, and yellow. It was at the tower that folks began their journey down the Avenida de Altares, which spanned the six square blocks along Alum Rock Avenue, between the Plaza and 101 freeway.
They strolled down sidewalks that were barely big enough to handle foot traffic in both directions to view altares that local artists had constructed to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer physically with us. Each altar had its own unique array of cempasuchiles, or marigolds, to complement the tapestries, candles, and other ofrendas laid out across the table. What was special about these altares; however, was that the artists constructed them in front of local businesses along the avenue. Many San Jose residents, and even some folks who reside in the Eastside, had never visited these businesses. This is precisely what made it so amazing that many of the owners themselves were also in front of their shops passing out pan dulce, champurrado, stew, and other goodies to members of the community.
As residents walked from altar to altar, they were also treated to a variety of performances from different ethnic dance groups. Guests witnessed Calpulli Tonalequeh’s Aztec dancers soaring through the air in front of JP Paving. They lost themselves in the white hues of Los Lupeños twirling dresses as they danced in the parking lot of Monica Rodriguez’s Allstate Insurance. Many also made it a point to stop in the shadows of JD Tires and feel the ukulele strums from Hālau Nāpuaokamokihanaoha’s hula performance. The multicultural lineup of dancers and accompanying music fed into the sonic clash of hip-hop across the avenue at El Patio and Portuguese music booming from a DJ in front of Grupo de Carnaval down the way.
For those 2 hours, Alum Rock Avenue was alive, pulsing with color, music, and the crowd. It was a scene that easily could’ve competed with the clamor and life of Downtown San Jose or Japantown. Many residents mentioned that for the first time in a long time, they felt a degree of pride in their neighborhood, and that Avenida had authentically captured the spirit of Mayfair. I spoke with folks from Cupertino, Sunnyvale, and even other parts of San Jose who had never been to the Eastside, and they were in awe of what they were seeing and hearing. It was a momentous step for a community often stereotyped as “the bad side of the town” or lacking in cultural capital.
Residents also mentioned that they were happy this event provided an authentic fusion of contemporary and traditional aspects of Dia de los Muertos, a tradition that has been co-opted for countless marketing campaigns in the United States and Mexico as of late. From hipster coffee collectives to CA lottery scratchers, it’s difficult to find a space or business that isn’t utilizing sugar skulls and calaka-themed merchandise to pander to Latinx market under the guise of “cultural appreciation”. However, for one night this tradition brought together hundreds of folks to celebrate and commemorate as one community, and it’s an experience they hope to build upon in the following years.