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.
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.
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.