I’ve been to Day of the Dead festivities all over Southern California, but I’ve never witnessed something so cool and awesome as the celebration last Sunday, Oct. 13, in Whittier, which included tricked-out lowrider cars.

Too late for you to go, you say?

Fair enough, so before this column is over I will share some terrific upcoming events – including one with pimped-out classic cars.

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Whiting)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of David Whiting)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Whiting)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Whiting)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Whiting)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Scarlett Donigan)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic low-rider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Whiting)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Whiting)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Whiting)

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Day of the Dead starts early in Whittier with costumes, face painting, classic lowrider cars and honoring ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Whiting)

But if it hadn’t been for my step-daughter, Scarlett Donigan, my journey to check out Day of the Dead altars, calavera (skull) face painting and other festivities would never have happened.

You see, Scarlett is an explorer.

Ancient traditions

As Scarlett leads my wife and me to the main event in Uptown Whittier, moms, dads, sons and daughters in colorful costumes, many with painted faces, follow along.

The closer we get, there are more people and less parking. Still, the vibe is mellow, friendly and gracious in a crowd estimated at more than 10,000.

No one pushes, no one shoves. And that makes sense.

Unofficially dubbed the Las Muertos Uptown Fest and officially named the 14th annual Día de los Muertos Art and Music Festival, the day is  all about family – both alive and dead.

If you haven’t been to a Day of the Dead celebration, don’t think Halloween. While the two are close in dates, they are very different in culture and sentiment. Halloween is spooky and is dress-up is anything goes.

Day of the Dead is rooted in Mexican culture and it’s a time to celebrate and honor deceased relatives. Generally celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, the occasion traces its roots to pre-Columbian culture when Aztecs honored their dead for an entire month.

As we round the corner and arrive on Whittier’s Greenleaf Avenue, the party already is in full swing.

A dozen Aztec dancers stomp in unison to a very real and very massive drum as they weave through the crowd. Feathers in their headdresses easily reach three feet or more. One energetic man even manages to dance while playing a flute, peering out from the mouth of a giant bird mask.

Other dancers wear skeleton bodices and swirling, twirling colorful skirts that dip and soar as onlookers snap photos.

A young boy poses with a woman in full Day of the Dead regalia, his shirt emblazoned with soldiers and the American flag.

Still, the best place for Day of the Dead costumes and body painting is at the Los Muertos Dress Up Contest. There are both kid and adult contests, and the detail is mind-blowing.

Costume contest

On a make-shift stage, a panel of judges eliminates contestants until only 10 are left.

But judging isn’t easy. All the outfits are exceptional. Handmade dresses feature intricate embroidery with yellow, green, orange, red and blue Aztec creatures marching across the material.

Finally, it’s down to three. One man in a black and silver mariachi outfit with a scary skull head receives third place. A couple wearing top hats and canes and decked out for a night on the town – except, of course, they are dead – wins second place.

The winner, however, kills it.

Her dress is black, gold and green. Her enormous feathered headdress is topped with both a small gold skull and a larger Aztec skull that appears to spit fire. And her upper torso and arms? Well, they appear to be painted directly onto her skin.

White ribs seem to jut out from a black void. Orange Monarch butterflies hover near her shoulders and appear to float above her chest in a folklorico trompe l’œil.

It is a stunning display. Still, it’s time to check out the lowrider cars.

Lowrider heaven

Let’s agree there are classic cars lovingly restored to their original condition, and there are classic cars which are restored and then turned into works of art.

The latter would be what some generally refer to as “lowrider classics.”

Each vehicle – and there are dozens at the festival – doesn’t just gleam. They are occupied by, well, dead people.

Oh, and the cars dance.

That’s right. Dance.

Some are hydraulically jacked so the fronts go up and down. There’s also a series of small trucks with rear beds raised, yet each one is raised in a different way.

One truck has its bed raised and tilted left, another is tilted to the right, still another has only the rear of the bed jacked, yet another has the front of the bed up high.

The vehicles also feature family altars either inside an open rear trunk, inside the front engine block or next to the car.

One car has four skulls peering from under the hood along with three framed photographs of deceased family members. Another car has keepsakes and flowers. One altar even includes photos that date back to the beginning of the 20th Century.

Finally, it is time to leave, though I leave with one regret.

I failed to follow Scarlett’s advice and try the roasted corn on the cob rolled in cheese. My wife only agree to share one bite – and it was delicious.

Fortunately, there’s next year.

Dia de los Muertos

Here are a few of the Dead celebrations coming up around our region:

Covina Hills, Forest Lawn Memorial Park

Oct. 27: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., free

Where: 21300 Via Verde Drive, Covina

What: Mariachi Divas, music, religious service, food, face painting. (I went last year and loved it.)

Information: 626-384-5340

Los Angeles, Dia de los Muertos at Olvera Street

Oct. 25-Nov. 2: Free

What: Novenario procession is at 7 p.m. nightly; festival days are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Oct. 26 and 27 and Nov. 2, 3 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 1, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 3 (another favorite)

More: olveraevents.com

Riverside Day of the Dead

Nov. 2: 1-10 p.m., free

What: Food, art, music, dance, altars.

Where: White Park, 3936 Chestnut St., Riverside

More: riversidedayofthedead.com

Riverside Day of the Dead Car Show

Nov. 3: 9 a.m.-3 p.m., $5 per ticket

What: Awards, food, music and pre-1972 classic and custom built cars, trucks and motorcycles

Where: Glen Avon Heritage Park, 7701 Mission Blvd., Jurupa Valley

Anaheim, Dia de Los Muertos

Nov. 1, 5–9:30 p.m., free

What: Arts, music, culture

Where: Community center, 250 E. Center St., Anaheim

More: facebook.com/AnaheimPLAYS

And here are a few more planned in Southern California.