Fun Friday – Celebrating Los Muertos

Today at Diego’s school the class celebrated El Dia de los Muertos with a fun sugar skull making activity. Diego is in the first grade at a spanish immersion program in our local public school district. It is a great opportunity for him to become bilingual, biliterate and enjoy his latino culture. It’s also a great opportunity for me to practice my spanish skills and enjoy my latino culture. Today was a perfect example. I took a couple of hours off from work to help out in the classroom.

In celebration of this Mexican holiday, the kids were shown how to decorate a traditional sugar skull. The skulls are made of real sugar and more than one of his classmates tried to taste the skull before decorating it.  The kids decorated their skulls with a frosting-like paste.

Then they attached sequins, feathers, glitter and more frosting.

 The end results were simply good enough to eat.  Que divertido!

El Dia de Los Muertos

Today is El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This is a holiday typically celebrated in Mexico, which commemorates the lives of family members who have died. I really like this holiday, but because it falls on the day after Halloween I usually am experiencing such a sugar crash that I can’t seem to get enough energy to do much to participate in all the festivities.

I first became interested in celebrating Dia de los Muertos about 15 years ago, when a good friend of mine who was also Latina, and an artist, would dress up as Caterina Calavera and attend festivals. We would drive all over southern California looking for festivals. There were a few places we would go, but the festivals were not big celebrations. They often felt like well-kept secrets, that only a few artists and others in the community knew about. Times have certainly changed. This year there are several festivals in my area. I actually had to choose which one I could attend. So I chose to go to one of the more popular events in Los Angeles. It was the Dia de los Muertos festival held at the Hollywood cemetery. It was quite an event. There were all kinds of arts and crafts, face painting, costumed and made up festival goers, food, music and of course,  altars.

The altars were works of art. There were so many different types of altars, built to celebrate the lives of loved ones.  On the altars there were the offerings of favorite foods, drinks,  and other typical items symbolic of the holiday.  There were marigolds, the strong scent which is thought to help the dead find their way to visit the living, bread in the shape of human or animal forms (pan de muerto), and photos of the departed. This holiday, which some may consider a bit morbid, is actually quite happy. It is a time when family members gather to celebrate the lives of their departed loved ones. I felt that joy too, as I looked at the altars and spoke to the artists who had created them.  I took several pictures, but the photos do not truly capture the uniqueness of this holiday and the beauty of the festival.

There were several elaborate altars, but those I  enjoyed the most were those with a personal significance. One altar I especially liked was created by several family members who lived in different states. They came together to create a large, beautiful altar which had photos of all their ancestors, and the matriarch of their family, a great-grandmother who had died on November 2. It was amazing to see this large group of family members, dressed up and made up as calaveras (skeletons) eating and drinking and playing music as they sat beside the altar. As they celebrated the life of a woman who had died several years ago, it was not difficult to feel her presence among the living. This is what Dia de los Muertos is all about.

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mom dancing

Latino Heritage

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.