Day of the Dead festival makes its return to South Street

South Street Headhouse District has revived the Day of the Dead Festival.

Mariachi music and a sea of anonymous sugar-skull painted faces flooded South Street this past Sunday, meaning only one thing. After a twelve-year hiatus, South Street’s Day of the Dead parade and festival has been resurrected.

The event, hosted by South Street Headhouse District, has been in the works for the past two months.

“We felt like it was time to bring this back,” said Mike Harris, South Street Headhouse District’s Executive Director. “Obviously we were right.”

The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is an Aztec holiday that has been practiced in Mexican culture for at least 3,000 years. Despite its name, the holiday is a celebration of life and the lives of those who have died. Dance, decorative costumes and music are very important elements of the celebration today. Sunday’s festival had it all.

South Street’s first Day of the Dead festival took place forty-five years ago. Philadelphia Magic Gardens’ founder Isaiah Zagar and his wife, Julia Zagar, originally started the event. Appropriately, Philadelphia Magic Gardens partnered with the South Street Headhouse District to bring the event back.

As for the hiatus, Zagar attributes that to the district at the time, and their attempt to take the event away from the people, or as Zagar put it, the “hippies.”

“They thought they could pull it off,” Zagar said. “But they couldn’t because they needed Julia and her expertise, and me and my tomfoolery.”

Now, under South Street Headhouse District, the Zagars have happily returned to the parade.

“We love Mexican culture,” Zagar said. “This is not a costume party. It’s a reverence for the past and what’s no longer here.”

According to Philadelphia-based artist Cesar Viveros, the festival is also a chance for Philadelphia’s Mexican community to make their mark.

“We finally have a space,” Viveros said. “This way the kids know what they are and where they come from.”

Viveros and his fourteen year old niece, Marian, participated in the festival as dancers. The specific style of dance they did was a form of storytelling.

“The dancers are representations of the elements,” he said. “It promotes sustainability and living as one with the earth.”

The event not only hosted dancers, vendors and the Reading-based five-piece band, Mariachi Rey Azteca, it also offered activities for all ages. The Philadelphia Magic Gardens set up a station for children to make tile skull magnets, an Ofrenda, which is an altar to love ones who have passed, but they also passed out chalk so that people could write messages to their deceased loved ones all over the street.

Arcelia Vivar, who came to the event with her daughters, was born in Puebla, Mexico where she never celebrated the Day of the Dead.

“In my town they don’t do anything like this,” Vivar said. “Same country, different cultures.”

Vivar said that the parade on Sunday successfully incorporated all of the different cultures in Mexico.

“I live in Jersey and I heard [about the festival] on the radio,” Vivar said. “I want to show my daughters what is my culture. I drove an hour and ten minutes, but it was worth it.”

 Jenny Kerrigan can be reached at

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