5 Questions with Angela Salamanca and Robin Simonton

As the 10th Day of the Dead 5k approaches, the two discuss the origins of the event — and what will happen next.
As told to Ayn-Monique Klahre

Angela Salamanca, the owner of Centro restaurant on S. Wilmington Street, and Robin Simonton, the executive director of Oakwood Cemetery, have worked together for nearly a decade on the Day of the Dead 5k, a fundraising run that starts at Centro and goes through the historic cemetery. Learn how the event came about and the transition that’s coming.

What is the origin of the Day of the Dead 5k?

Angela: We started it 12 years, but didn’t do it the last two years, so this is our 10th year. We started it because we wanted to do something active, to elevate and spread more information about the holiday itself. Selfishly, I wanted to do something for to honor my sister, who passed away in 2003. The first time we gathered it was for a bike ride — my sister was an avid biker — and we just decided to dress up and go. But a bunch of people showed up, we did the ride and then had a buffet at the restaurant, and we made the altar. Then the next year we did it, Day of the Dead fell on a Friday, and a lot of people showed up with their kids. We didn’t have a permit, it was the middle of peak traffic riding around downtown — we realized that if we were going to do it again, we would have to choose a date and make it safer, close the street and such. And then we were trying to figure out to draw more people, and a 5k would bring more people than a bike ride. We also wanted to find a partner in the Latin American community, which is how we started with the Brentwood Boys & Girls Club, they serve about 90% Latina American kids.

Robin: Then during the race in 2012, I was working at Oakwood Cemetery on a Saturday and I saw all these people running past the front gates — they’re in costume, they’re having a blast — and I wondered, why not have them do the running in the cemetery itself? So I got connected to Angela…

Angela: I had always wanted to do it, but I wasn’t sure if it would be offensive to the loved ones of the people in the cemetery.

Robin: So we decided to do it, and to put the ofrenda in the cemetery. 

Tell me about the ofrenda…

Angela: It’s been so beautiful to see the ofrenda grow from the first time we did it at the restaurant. The first time, it was my kitchen staff that asked if we could set up an ofrenda, they wanted to do it and I said of course, just let me know what you need. They set up the most beautiful thing, it was so moving. That’s when I was first exposed to the holiday. 

Robin: So the first time we did it, I met Angela after shift, around 11 o’clock at night. It was it’s pitch black and we’re shining our car headlights to build the ofrenda. It was very spooky and we were there until after midnight!

Angela: So the first year we set up one small table and a tent in the cemetery. And what happened was that so many people left little offerings on the altar, little pictures and trinkets. It’s such an emotional thing to see people responding in that way. So it’s grown in size, last year it was four tables in a double tent with sides. It’s become this massive, beautiful collaboration, full of colors and pictures and trinkets and flowers. We set it up during the week, and we save the photos that people leave and frame them and put them back the next year.

What does it look like?

Robin: It’s this explosion of color with a giant skull in the middle, and all the mums and these amazing photographs. When my grandmother died, I added her photo to the table, and Angela brought it out the next year and had framed it. And it was just so wonderful to see my own loved one as part of that memory.

Angela: Now we’ve learned, we set it up the Wednesday before the race and take it down on November 2 to give ourselves more time.

How are you transitioning the event?

Angela: We are handing the race over to the club. They’re going to be the ones organizing it, but we’re handing them the book, all of our contacts and connections, and they’re learning the ropes. It’ll still be in front of the restaurants, the loved ones will continue to be honored, but this event had grown so much that I had to decide what was really sustainable for me to do. They have the manpower to do it. But I am still committed to doing the altar, that is such a spiritual experience. But the race itself, that’s on them and we’ll continue to support them. I think it’s really important as a business to give back to the community, and this race was the conduit, and now we can give them ownership of something that really works, that they can count on as a budget itsem.

Robin: I am so excited to see these folks enter the date. It’s been two long years without the fun. It’s the most lively day, even so much that families whose loved ones are in Oakwood Cemetery now come and decorate the graves in preparation. What started off as something that people here are unfamiliar with has become this well loved tradition.

What’s your favorite part of the Day of the Dead 5k?

Angela: For me, what’s actually the most unintended win is the kids of the club running. The first year we had about 30 kids, then we kept adding more, and now we have about 120 kids that train and then come to run the race. They are so excited to be part of the event, and they run and cheer each other on. It’s so inspiring, we could have never antitipated that they would be so invested!

Robin: They are the definition of teamwork. Some are fast enough to be on their own, but they’ll make sure the other kids have water and cheer them on. It’s great to see all the kids buy in.

This article was published on waltermagazine.com on October 13, 2022.