How the Chicano Moratorium Made Día De Los Muertos a Pivotal Celebration for Civil Rights and Identity

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What began as a movement against the Vietnam War would become the most important activist collective in the Latino community during the 20th century. The Chicano Moratorium, formally known as the Chicano National Moratorium Committee against the Vietnam War, is today one of the most important community organizations in U.S. Latino history.

Led by activists from local colleges and members of the Brown Berets, a group with roots in the high school student movement that organized walkouts in 1968, the coalition reached its peak with an August 29, 1970 march in East Los Angeles that drew 30,000 demonstrators.

But what you may not have known is that the Chicano Moratorium put the Día de Los Muertos celebration on the map, transforming a largely private tradition with Indigenous roots in Mexico into public participation.

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In the 1970s, a procession of floats traveled from Evergreen Cemetery to Self-Help Graphics in Boyle Heights on Día de Los Muertos. Courtesy of kcrw.com.

As reported by KCRW, the intrinsic relationship that the Día de Los Muertos celebration has with the social and activist identity of the Mexican-American community in the United States stems largely from the art and activism that grew out of the 1970 Chicano Moratorium and the civil rights movement.

Boyle Heights historian, Shmuel Gonzales, explained to the media outlet that Karen Boccalero, a nun and founder of Self-Help Graphics & Art, helped establish the tradition locally in Los Angeles.

“She was a radical, chain-smoking, cursing nun who loved to make art,” Gonzales says. “She had noticed that when, not just Chicanos, but Jewish allies were shot down in the streets, many people thought that for safety, they needed to shut down the Chicano movement. She insisted, no, it needed to get momentum. So she wanted to find a day to raise the spirits.”

According to the National Museum of Mexican Art, Boccalero was the first to organize a Día de Los Muertos exhibit in the U.S. She was familiar with the holiday from her time at Immaculate Heart College, according to a KCET documentary, where she saw the 1957 film “Día de Los Muertos” by Charles and Ray Eames.

“She presented it to the first generation of Chicano activists and had to convince them that it wasn’t morbid, that it was the way that we are going to be able to come to terms with death and celebrate people’s lives and immortalize them,” Gonzales says.

The first Día de Los Muertos was a small gathering in the parking lot behind Self-Help Graphics in 1972. In 1973, a procession of people and floats traveled down the street from Evergreen Cemetery to the organization’s headquarters. A Catholic mass and Indian ceremonies were held at the cemetery, with the participation of the Asco art collective.

Observance of the tradition spread and, after decades of activism, art, and even commercialization, it is widely celebrated in all parts of the country.

This year, the Los Angeles City Historical Society will hold a webinar on the Chicano Moratorium’s celebration of Día de Los Muertos between the 1970s and 1980s, highlighting the intersection of death, art, and Chicano identity.

“After the Chicano Moratorium and the death of Ruben Salazar in 1970, Chicano artists utilized the holiday as a new way of affirming their cultural resilience through a public expression of celebration, healing, and mourning” the Los Angeles City Historical Society explains in their invitation. “This holiday was part of an artistic movement that enabled Chicanos to publicly discuss the structural inequalities that brought them closer to death.”

The webinar will be held on Tuesday, November 16, at 7:00 PM, and you can register here.