Downtown Santa Ana to mark 20th year of Noche de Altares celebration

A participant lights a candle in front of an altar and its multiple offerings during Noche de Altares in downtown Santa Ana.
(Jenny Lynn @SteadyJenny)

Noche de Altares, or Night of Altars, returns to the streets of downtown Santa Ana for the 20th year to celebrate the Day of the Dead on Saturday.

Santa Ana’s El Centro Cultural de México has been organizing the Noche de Altares event since 2002 as a way for the community to celebrate Día de los Muertos, a day popular in Mexico and other Latin countries dedicated to honoring beloved family members who have passed away.

Catrina shares a flame with onlookers at the 2018 Noche de Altares, or Night of Altars event.
(Jenny Lynn @SteadyJenny)

“The positive response we received from our community has been amazing,” said Karen Sarabia, a member of the Noche de Altares committee.

There are many traditions associated with the multiday holiday, such as the making of sugar skulls, or calaveras, and the baking of pan de muerto.

Among the most widely embraced traditions is the building of ofrendas or altars, decorated with photos of the deceased along with marigolds and sometimes the favorite foods or drinks of the departed. For Noche de Altares, families, artists and businesses are invited to build their own altars to honor loved ones or highlight a cause or social issue. Altars are also built for the 32 states of Mexico, including Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacan and Guerrero, along with ones for countries such as El Salvador and Bolivia.

Although El Centro Cultural de México has organized the event for 20 years, the first installations of altars in Downtown Santa Ana began as early as 1998, in places like the Consulate of Mexico and the Library of Santa Ana.

Noche de Altares, or Night of Altars, on 4th Street in Santa Ana in 2018.
(Jenny Lynn @SteadyJenny)

In preparation for the event, El Centro Cultural de México hosts altar-making classes and workshops leading up to the night. Volunteers host and share knowledge for flower workshops, classes on traditional food, sugar skulls, papel picado and arches for altars.

“This year we had a cartonería workshop,” said Sarabia. “It is a technique with paper.”

Cartonería are sculptures formed using papier-mâché traditionally found in Mexico, and this year community artist Gio Vazquez taught workshop attendees the craft. His work along with others will be on display at Noche de Altares.

“So now we have altars plus art installations,” said Sarabia. “We are giving space for artists to display their art work.”

The event turns out nearly 120 altars, and food vendors and live music have been added to the festivities for the more than 40,000 visitors each year.

Catrina lighting up candles at a previous Noche de Altares event in Santa Ana.
(Jenny Lynn @SteadyJenny)

The celebration begins with a ceremony of pre-Columbian dancers, presented by El Centro Cultural de México’s Aztec Dance class and will be followed by the procession of La Catrina, a female skeleton figure in a fancy hat and dress made famous in folklore by artists like José Guadalupe Posada, who will light the altar candles.

This year’s event will also honor individuals who contributed to Noche de Altares’ growth through its 20 years. Like Eric Velasco, for example, who taught a workshop on flower cultivation, particularly the marigold, or cempasúchil, at El Centro Cultural de México for many years. A well-known figure in the community, Velasco was referred to El Centro co-founder Socorro Sarmiento by a family member, and the successful farmer and businesses owner began helping others in the community grow their own cempasúchiles with seeds he would bring from his land in Oaxaca.

The Aztec Dance ceremony will be dedicated to Chalchiutlimahua, also known as Chalchiu, a captain and participant of the Aztec Dance who passed away this year. His image appears on this year’s Noche de Altares posters.

“What I’m looking forward to at this event is the danza azteca ceremony dedicated to my dearest friend Chalchiuhtilmahua that passed away,” Sarabia said. “He was an amazing artist and altar builder.”

Noche de Altares takes place Saturday, Nov. 5, from 1 to 10 p.m. at Flower Street and Civic Center in Santa Ana. For more information, visit

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