Día de los Muertos altars in Old Town.

Many beautiful Día de los Muertos altars can now be viewed in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. They were built for Mexico’s traditional Día de los Muertos celebration, which begins in a little over a week. The holiday stretches from November 1st to 2nd.

Several of the beautiful altars you are about to see have been installed in historical buildings that operate in the State Park as free museums. These altars pay tribute to people who lived in early San Diego.

Today I and several other visitors enjoyed an educational tour of four particular altars. Our friendly and knowledgeable guide was Aaron, whom I’d seen a few minutes prior to the tour hammering away in Old Town’s Blacksmith Shop!

Our group began in front of the Robinson-Rose Visitor Information Center, where we learned about the history of Día de los Muertos, its origin, meaning, and the rich symbolism contained in the traditional altars. You can learn all about the Day of the Dead by checking out this Wikipedia page here.

Our group began by looking at a small altar set up on a cart by the Visitor Center’s front door. The touching altar honored and remembered Old Town State Park volunteers who had passed on from this life.

Over 4 million visitors come to this State Park every year, including many school children. Without dedicated volunteers, maintaining the vibrancy of this very special place wouldn’t be possible.

We then proceeded across a corner of Old Town’s grassy plaza to La Casa de Machado y Silvas, which is now the Commercial Restaurant museum. Inside, we learned about this old adobe’s history.

In one room of the historic adobe a large, beautiful altar paid tribute to many notable residents of San Diego in the mid-1800s.

Some photographs in the altar showed relatives of María Antonia and her husband, José Antonio Nicasio Silvas. The newly married couple was gifted this house by María’s father José Manuel Machado, who commanded the military guards at nearby Mission San Diego.

Next came an altar inside La Casa de Machado y Stewart. The images in this altar are of José Manuel Machado and his wife María Serafina Valdez de Machado.

The two raised eleven children. Their daughter, Rosa Machado, married a New Englander named John “Jack” Collins Stewart and thereby inherited this house. Stewart was a shipmate of famous author Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who described a visit to the house in Two Years Before the Mast.

It was interesting to see that the ofrendas (offerings) on the floor in front of this altar include playing cards, a pipe and liquor!

Food and objects that brought pleasure in life are meant to entice souls back to our world–at least during Día de los Muertos.

Our group finally headed to the small historic San Diego Union Building, where an altar remembered two figures in the early history of our city’s major newspaper.

The photos are of Edward “Ned” Bushyhead and José Narciso Briseño. Bushyhead was not only a Cherokee miner and lawman, but he was the newspaper’s first publisher. Briseño, a native of Chile, was the printer.

This altar is quite unusual in that it contains a pile of sorts–small typesetting pieces used to assemble words, that were subsequently printed in columns on sheets of paper using a hand press.

The next two altars that I photographed today were not part of the tour.

The following example on a cart can be found in Wallach & Goldman Square, among many shops. I know nothing specific about it…

And finally, probably the most impressive of all the Old Town altars is the one inside the sala (living room) of La Casa de Estudillo.

The sprawling adobe and its beautiful courtyard, built by Presidio comandante José María Estudillo and his son, lieutenant José Antonio Estudillo, became San Diego’s social and religious center during the Mexican and early American periods.

Most Californio families, like the Estudillos, were Roman Catholic…traveling priests performed weddings, baptisms, and memorial services here in the Sala for the people of San Diego.

I encourage those visiting Old Town San Diego State Historic Park this week to sign up for the daily 3 pm Día de los Muertos altar tour. A limited number of people can participate. The guided tour lasts a little less than an hour.

You can sign up at the counter inside the Robinson-Rose Visitor Information Center!

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Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

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