On display and for sale at Olvera Street.

Celebrating the Day of the Dead

Today is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. I have never really celebrated this holiday, even though I have long had a fascination with the rituals and the history behind this tradition.

Day of the Dead isn’t about a morbid fascination of death or the dead. It’s a time when families in many Latin American countries, and in some parts of the U.S., celebrate the memories of loved ones who have passed on.  Legend has it that on this day, the “veil” between this life and the after life is thinned, to allow the spirits of our loved ancestors to come back.  In Mexico, families gather at the gravesites of departed family members, cleaning headstones, decorating the graves, and picnicking as they tell stories, sing songs and reminisce with fondness their departed family members. Many families build altars in their homes, adorned with photos of the deceased, and offerings of favorite foods or momentos. The altar typically has other elements which symbolize the four elements of nature: air as represented by the decorative cut paper banner (papel picado), earth as represented by food, fire as represented by the altar candles, and water.

About 20 years ago, when I was in a Mexican folk dancing group, I became friends with several people who celebrated this tradition.  One year, we drove all over the Los Angeles area looking for celebrations and exhibits commemorating Day of Dead. We didn’t find too many. Recently, though, it seems you can’t go anywhere in the Los Angelesarea without running into the celebrations. Last year I went to one of the biggest celebrations in Los Angeles, held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetary. I blogged about that here. Yesterday,  I went to a local supermarket which is part of a major grocery chain, and I found a pan de muerto.  I was surprised to see this sold at the supermarket, so I had to buy it.

A sweet bread mad in the shape of bodies or decorated with shapes to resemble bones.

Today, leaving my downtown LA office I ran into someone wearing full-face make-up like a skull. No doubt, she was there to participate in the Olvera Street festival. Olvera Street is a kind of touristy, but fun, Mexican market place. I went for a walk over there yesterday during my lunch hour and the  place was filled with candy and colorful ceramic skulls, (calaveras), paper flowers, papel picado and the smell of marigolds.

On display and for sale at Olvera Street.

I love that this holiday is becoming more widely known.I think the colors and the pageantry and the rituals behind the day should be celebrated by all those who wish to participate.

This year I decided I wanted to celebrate with my family, both living and departed, so, we built altar in our family room. Here’s a photo of my altar. It includes pictures of several of our grandparents. Since we are a blended family, our altar probably honored more grandparents than the typical altar.

There are some momentos for Olivia and Erica’s maternal grandmother, Grandma Lupe.  She loved Elvis and was quite artistic

There’s a photo of Nico’s paternal grandfather, and there’s photos of both of my grandparents, and photos of my cousin and her parents.

 

Juan added a photo of his maternal grandparents, and their favorite “cafecito.” There’s a memory of our loved dog, Mischief.  We also added the typical offerings of pan de muerto and flowers, and a calavera.  The water is held in a favorite glass, which was one of a set belonging to my grandmother. The shawls, or rebozos, which were used as drapes on the altar were given to me by my grandmother too. Even though we may not get an actual visit from any of our departed relatives this evening, the act of creating the altar helped to remind us of the all those we love and miss, and that is what the Dia de los Muertos is all about.

Latino Heritage Month

Today marks the beginning of Latino Heritage Month. In honor of the month long celebration of Latino culture, I am re-posting something I wrote last year.  Well, I am re-cycling the post for that reason, and the fact I am so overwhelmed with life right now that I haven’t had much time to blog.  But, with the weekend in sight, I may be able to put up a new post soon! Thanks for stopping by.

This past month has been a celebration of Latino heritage. Latino Heritage  Month technically runs from September 15 to October 15.  Being Latina is a big part of who I am.  During most of my childhood, I lived in a very diverse community near Los Angeles.  In my neighborhood there were Armenians, Japanese Americans, Anglos, and people who looked like me. It wasn’t until I moved to a predominately white suburb that I was aware that I was different. During my first days in the new school, my new classmates were naturally curious about the “new girl.”  They asked me “what I was.”  I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that question because I wasn’t really sure what they were asking, and I had never been asked that question before. I must have looked confused because the follow-up question was, “Are you Hawaiian…Italian… Indian?” Mexican wasn’t even an option.

I responded that I was Mexican, and then they asked if I was born in Mexico.

 Over the years I have been asked that question several more times, although it may not have been phrased the same way.   Depending on the circumstances I answered the questions in varying ways:

“I’m Mexican.”

“I’m Mexican American.”

“I’m Hispanic.”

“I’m  Latina.”

“I’m American, but of Mexican ancestry.”

“I was born in the U.S. but all of my grandparents were born in Mexico.”

Even though I wasn’t always certain what was the best way to answer that question, I still felt certain that I knew who I was and where my family was from. And I felt proud of my heritage.  My parents and family raised me with pride in our heritage, and culture. At family celebrations,  I would watch my mother dance  the Mexican folk dances she had learned as a young girl. 

I learned these dances too. I have had occasion to dance as an adult. 

I am so glad that some of these cultural lessons have been passed on to my children, my step-daughter Erica.

Diego, my youngest son, walked in the Latino Heritage parade last week. He marched with his classmates from his 1st grade Spanish immersion program. He wore the hat typical of his father’s native country, Colombia.

This is what Latino heritage is all about. A celebration of who we are and who are ancestors were. I hope that when my kids are asked the question, “What are you?” They will know how to answer, and they will answer with pride.

What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

You have probably heard these lines before, but in case you didn’t read the Cliff Notes along with your assigned high school reading of this scene, Juliet is pining away, after meeting Romeo and learning he’s a Montague. The Montague’s are family rivals to Juliet’s Capulet clan. Juliet muses that although her newly beloved is a  Montague, what matters is who he is, and not what he is called. Ah, love.

We all know this is true. What matters is the person you are and not the name you are given. Unless, of course, you are a young boy with a spanish sounding name, growing up in a largely white, suburban neighborhood, like my husband, Juan Rafael. Or Juan. Or Ralph. Yes, Ralph. He became Ralph when he was in first grade and the nuns at St. Hedwig couldn’t say Juan Rafael.  Now, with a name like St. Hedwig, why the nuns felt compelled to give Juan a more English sounding name is beyond me.

Juan Rafael is a beautiful name, and sounds especially nice when it’s said with a Spanish accent. But, when my husband was growing up in the 70’s  and the nuns at his Catholic elementary school couldn’t pronounce his name, they asked him to for the english equivalent. He told them Juan was John, and Rafael was Ralph. They nuns decided to call him Ralph. He was Ralph all though elementary and high school. Even his Colombian family called him Ralph.  When he got to college Ralph took back his name and became Juan. He also changed his political party, joined MECHA and became active in politics, but that’s another story.

So, when I was pregnant with our child,  and Juan and I learned it was a boy, we began to consider names. We knew we wanted something that would translate to Spanish, but we had a hard time agreeing on anything. Then, we recalled where our son was conceived–in Acapulco, Mexico, during a celebratory wedding weekend for some family friends. The groom was named Diego. Diego. It was perfect. Not too ordinary. No tricky spanish pronunciation, but a name that translated to Spanish. We announced to my family our intention of naming our son the Spanish equivalent of James.  My dad, Jesus, loved the name we’d chosen. My dad, whose name is a popular choice among latinos, and who probably fought his own demons because of his moniker, thought Diego was a perfect choice for his only grandson who would be born of two latino parents. But then again, my father, who has a strong sense of pride in our own Mexican culture, would have been happy if Juan and I named our son after the Aztec ruler, Cuahtemoc. My mother wasn’t too sure of our choice. She asked me, “You’re really going to name him Diego?” Yes, I really am.

When our son was born, he did not look like a “Diego.” He looked like, well, a red, squishy faced, hairy little monkey.  One day I sat down to nurse my little monkey and turned on the TV.  As I  changed channels I came across Nickelodeon TV and I I saw this:

What? A kid’s show with a little brown-skinned explorer boy with jungle animals as his friends, named Diego? The show was “Go Diego Go.” It was kind of cute, but still obnoxious enough that I suddenly began to doubt my choice of moniker for my little monkey. How often would he be teased about his name? Would the theme song follow him onto the school yard and beyond? Luckily, I had been living under a rock and didn’t realize how popular the show was. It was a favorite among the pre-school set. By the time Diego entered pre-school, the name had a certain cache to it. My mother even came around, and told me that Diego’s name suited him perfectly.

I felt very pleased with myself about the name we had chosen. I even celebrated it when I planned his 3rd birthday party with a Go Diego Go theme.

One day, not long after Diego entered kindergarten he came home telling me about the friends he’d made. There was Ben, Ethan, Chris, Matt and a little boy with a biblical name, Oshea. Diego asked me why couldn’t he be named something else. Something more simple. Why couldn’t he be called Ben or, even better, Oshea?  Sigh.

My Father’s Story

This is my father when he was a boy.

He was born in an area near El Paso, Texas, called Smeltertown.  It was called Smeltertown because of the smelt from the nearby mines.  I don’t think the name of the town is very appealing,  but, when I was little I would hear stories of his childhood, and I would think that Smeltertown sounded like a fascinating place.

Sometimes my dad’s childhood stories were tales of his struggles growing up, being raised by his adoptive mother, and his adoptive grandmother. My dad’s mother died when he was just months old.  His mother’s cousin, and her mother, raised him in Smeltertown. They made their living, in part, selling masa to make tortillas.  My dad worked alongside his adoptive mother and grandmother.

My dad's mother, cousin, and aunts.

My father was raised by these two strong, independent women.  They loved him and cared for him, but  were strict disciplinarians with him.  The only male presence, my father’s step-father, was largely absent.  When my dad was a teen they came to California and settled in a pretty rough neighborhood in East Los Angeles.

Dad, circa 1950, Belmont High School, Los Angeles.

He stayed out of trouble and eventually joined the army, which gave him more discipline, and offered him greater opportunity.

Dad in the Panama Canal Zone, 1953

My dad got out of the army and lived the single life, until he met and married my mom. They started their family right away, with three kids born in just over 4 years.  When my dad became a father, he had very little personal exposure to what being a father in a nuclear family looked like. Nowadays, they call that “modeling.”

Family Dinner, circa 1978.

But the lack of “modeling” has not deterred my dad. He learned a lot along the way. We have learned a lot along the way together too. Sometimes the lessons were rough. But, always, we knew he loved us and took care of us. And always, along the way, we have built new memories and created our own stories.

He took us on family vacations.

Family vacation to Vancouver, Canada, circa 1977. (Dad's not pictured because he was the photographer!)

Many times these vacations involved one of his favorite activities, fishing.

Vacation at Mammoth Lakes, California. Circa 1970.

Another Mammoth Lakes vacation.

He sang us songs.

Canciones de mi padre.

He coached my brothers in sports.

He has become a devoted grandfather.

Dad and Nico and Diego all dressed up.

When I was little people would comment how much I looked like my dad. I would cry because I thought they meant I was chubby and had a mustache.

Dad and I at my college graduation, 1986

But, now I understand that they meant we had similar features. Today, I know that my dad and I are similar in ways beyond our physical appearance, and even beyond some of our similar behaviors.  My dad and I share a similar understanding, and appreciation for each other. We have struggled. We are flawed, but we love each other. He is my father. I am his daughter. We are familia.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad.

The “J” of Spanish

Only two more days before Diego returns to school at his Spanish immersion program. During the winter break we’ve kept busy with holiday festivities, and we’ve had fun playing card games, board games and video games. We’ve also continued to practice his Spanish vocabulary whenever we can.

Diego’s Spanish has improved so much since he started the immersion program last year in kindergarten. He is so proud of himself and continues to remind us how, during a Spanish vocabulary drill on a family car ride,  he came up with the word for “pillows” before his 15 year-old sister, Olivia. Olivia,  who is in a high school Spanish II honors class, does not like to be reminded of that moment she was stumped by her 6 year-old brother.

This morning Diego tried to stump me with his own Spanish challenge.

D: “Mommy, what is the word for pencil?”

Me: Lápiz.

D: “Mommy, what is the word for paper?”

Me: Papel.

D: “How do you say “desk?’

Me: “Escritorio.”

D: “Noooo…It’s PUPITRE!!”

Me: “WHAT? Well, there are two ways to say “desk” in Spanish!”

An argument ensued, where I tried to redeem my Spanish fluency  in front of my little linguist. I lost. Diego offered some words of sympathy and encouragement.

“That’s okay Mommy. You can be the “J” of Spanish.”

What is the “J” of Spanish? I thought of all the Spanish vocabulary words which begin with “J” and could possibly mean, “Beginner,” “Novice,” “Loser.” Diego reminded me that we had been playing War with a deck of cards the other day, and he explained:

Daddy is the King. I am his Bodyguard and you are “J.”

“J?” I am only the Jack? Doesn’t a King need a Queen?

Diego tried to offer me more encouragement, “When you learn more Spanish you can be the Queen.”

Hmmp! I only hope that my Spanish will improve and I will be made Queen.  In the meantime, I may just stick to challenging Diego to games of War instead of Spanish vocab challenges.