Martha Victoria Vega protects a candle that will be used to light other candles at the Dia de las Muertos ceremony
Martha Victoria Vega protects a candle that will be used to light other candles at the Dia de las Muertos ceremony at Watsonville City Plaza on Saturday.
(Dan Evans / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wallace Baine

WALLACE BAINE: Has Santa Cruz reached a turning point with Halloween?

Whether Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz somehow reverts to its pre-pandemic ways on Sunday evening or not, it appears Halloween might be swerving toward a more mature version of itself that can be echoed by the increased awareness around Dia de Los Muertos.

This Halloween, let us sit back in our rocking chairs and turn the ol’ nostalgia machine all the way back to the bygone era of the 2010s (I know, right? Who remembers avocado toast? Jerry Brown? Lakes and rivers?). You’ll recall, old-timer, as I do, that the craziest, most gonzo party of the year always landed on one time, in one place: Halloween in Santa Cruz.

Used to be that downtown Santa Cruz was a complete madhouse on Halloween. For many years, Pacific Avenue, from sundown to the wee hours, was a parade of spectacle and brazenness, a theatrical showcase for the creative or the depraved (depending on your tolerance for gross-out or risqué vulgarity).

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Pacific Avenue would be choked with costumed revelers, many from out of town, bewigged and bejeweled, body-painted and cosplaying. Comic-book heroes rubbed shoulders with politicians, zombies with hippies, exhibitionists with gawkers. The whole point of the evening was to slowly stroll back and forth from the Clock Tower to Saturn Cafe, or some fraction thereof, showing off your cleverness and/or your cleavage.

For a while there, Santa Cruz ranked with the Castro or the Haight as a top destination for see-and-be-seen Halloween in the Bay Area. I remember several years ago, chatting up a cowboy and his cow-girlfriend, both showing lots more skin than leather. They told me that they had come to Santa Cruz all the way from Union City (and yes, once they moseyed on, I had to google “Union City.”)

The day actually had a shape to it. In the afternoon and the dusk hours, families and children flooded the zone in a delightful trick-or-treating free-for-all with downtown merchants. After sunset, teens and college kids emerged offering up more eye candy than literal candy. Then after 10 or 11 p.m., things would get dark in more ways than one, as the make-believe monsters would give way to the inebriated and the sinister.

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And the city gave tacit approval to the whole shebang by closing off Pacific Avenue to vehicles and wheeling in giant floodlights, better to get an eyeful.

Yep, that happened, once upon a time. This Halloween, the city is not closing downtown to vehicles, as an acknowledgement, a fervent hope, or an assertive action (choose one) to assure that the massive influx of years past won’t materialize.

Maybe, in 2022 or ’23 (or ’33), the big party atmosphere will snap right back into place once we’re all past this pandemic business. But this sure feels like a punctuation to a period, and a transition point to something else. I, for one, am not lamenting such a transition. For the police, city workers, people who live downtown, Halloween has traditionally been a giant mess, not quite worth the lurid spectacle and chaotic pageantry.

Of all the popular annual observances on the calendar (please don’t call it a “holiday”), Halloween has always been the one most subject to evolution at the hands of cultural influences. Just in the past few decades, Halloween has changed shape consistently, from strictly a kid experience of door-to-door trick-or-treating, to a kind of transgressive celebration of imagined suburban violence in the form of slasher films, to a licentious, sexed-up, very adult parade of quasi-nudity.

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Halloween costumes have gone from supernatural ghosts and witches to grotesque serial killers to pop-culture-oriented celebrities and superheroes to Victoria’s Secret runway models.

On Saturday, the evening before Halloween, there was none of that in the Plaza in downtown Watsonville. A couple of dozen people gathered in another ritual of the season, this one inspired by the age-old Mexican tradition of Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Everyone was given a candle and an orange-yellow cempasúchil flower and everyone spoke briefly of someone in his or her life who had died. The mood was wistful, not funereal. It was acknowledging grief, but recognizing that memories of loved ones endure long after grief has lifted.

Jovita Molina (center) takes part in the Dia de las Muertos ceremony at the Watsonville City Plaza on Saturday.
Jovita Molina (center) takes part in the Dia de las Muertos ceremony at the Watsonville City Plaza on Saturday.
(Dan Evans / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Generally, the vibe of Dia de Los Muertos (technically, the day or two after Halloween) is not celebratory, at least not in the boozy sense of contemporary party-down Halloween. It’s a solemn but also joyous, sometimes even playful, occasion to remind the living of the continuing presence of the dead in their lives, as well as a defiant gaze into that which scares all of us more than anything else, the face of death.

In American culture, Dia de Los Muertos is nothing new, but its mainstreaming has taken giant leaps forward in recent years, from Pixar’s beautifully animated “Coco” to sugar skull ceramic pots for sale at your corner Trader Joe’s.

Even though it’s still largely unknown in many pockets of Anglo culture — the New York Times this week felt the need to run a story headlined “What is Day of the Dead?” — I can totally picture a day when marigolds and calaveras begin to push aside green-faced witches and jack-o-lanterns as Halloween’s dominant icons … at least until Tucker Carlson’s first “War on Halloween” segment on Fox News.

The sexed-up Halloween trend is showing its age and, largely because of its sexist asymmetry, it might be quickly fading into the background. Might the pandemic bring about a new orientation toward Halloween, an approach more mature and spiritually nourishing than candy corn or candy porn?

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The party spirit that Halloween encourages isn’t going to disappear. But maybe the pain, the loss, and the sense of social and spiritual displacement of the pandemic — as well as the climactic, economic, and political adversity to come — will demand something more meaningful than the ultimately empty celebration of Halloween.

Maybe Dia de Los Muertos will provide that deeper context. Maybe a Santa Cruz Halloween is destined to look different in future years, fewer blood-stained hockey masks and naughty nurses, and more marigolds and sugar skulls, less titillation and more contemplation. The moment, the mood, and the opportunity are all there. The dead deserve the recognition of the living. The living deserve the company of the dead.

A man lights a candle during the Dia de las Muertos ceremony at the Watsonville City Plaza on Oct. 30, 2021.
A man lights a candle during the Dia de las Muertos ceremony at the Watsonville City Plaza on Oct. 30, 2021.
(Dan Evans / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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