Have we talked about Dia de los Muertos?

I keep thinking we have, but I can’t find anything in the archives and that seems QUITE short-sighted of me. If you’re not familiar, Dia de los Muertos is the Day of the Dead, a traditional holiday in Latin America. In many places it predates the Spanish colonization of the Americas and was adapted to the days after Halloween to coincide with a Christian calendar that already tipped a hat to the dead on those days. And a caveat: what I’m writing today is a vast oversimplification of an observance that is complex and varies a LOT depending upon where the celebrations are occurring. (The history of the holiday in northern Mexico is particularly involved.) Also, I am referring to it as a single day, but it’s traditionally marked as two days–Nov. 1 & 2 with the first day being set aside to honor children as well as the saints as dictated by the Catholic calendar and the second for honoring the rest of the dead.

I grew up in South Texas where Dia de los Muertos is a BIG deal. Preparations go on for weeks ahead of time, and the mood is oddly festive. You’d think a holiday designed to remember the dead would be somber, but nothing could be further from the truth. Families clean the headstones of their loved ones, tidying up the graves and laying them with flowers. They pack picnic lunches and spend time eating and drinking at the resting places of their ancestors. They hang papel picado–garlands of colorful paper cut into intricate shapes–and they bake special breads and candies.

One of the centerpieces of the celebrations is the constructing of ofrendas or altars to commemorate those who have passed on. Pictures of the loved ones will be positioned with their favorite foods and drinks; mementos of their habits such as a pack of cigarettes or a beloved cooking utensil might be included. There will be tall candles with images of saints and HEAPS of marigolds, the traditional flower to guide the spirits to their ofrendas. This, after all, is the point of Dia de los Muertos–to invite the dead back to visit for a short while. Many cultures believe the veil between worlds is thinnest at this time, and while others might welcome their dead with somber observances, Dia de los Muertos invites them back for a party. The ofrendas and festive gravesites send the clear message: you are not forgotten.

Also traditional for this day are the baking of pan de muerto (dead bread, as we called it), and the crafting of sugar skulls. The bread is dense and sweet, flavored with anise and baked in the shape of the departed, personalized with characteristics of those who have died or decorated with skulls and bones fashioned of dough and glazed with egg wash. If you’ve noticed the abundance of friendly-looking skulls in the Halloween aisles in the last few years, they are calaveras borrowed from the celebrations of Dia de los Muertos. (There is controversy about the appropriation of the calavera by people who don’t know its origins or respect its tradition.) The markets are crowded with tiny crunchy skulls festooned with lacy icing–for eating–as well as life-sized papier-mache versions painted brightly and meant for display. There are miniature skeletons dressed up in all the occupations, reminders that death comes for everyone in the end.

You would think that with all the emphasis on death it would be a grim time, but the truth is, some of my happiest memories from South Texas are tied to these celebrations. The sharp scent of the marigolds mingling with the wax from the bodega candles, the vivid colors, the sweet crumb of the dead bread–and with it all the reassurance that those you love haven’t gone so very far after all. After my maternal grandmother’s death, it was those traditions that gave me a place for my grief. It took a few years of floundering at her death date of November 5, but one year it finally clicked with me that I needed to make an ofrenda for her. I included my paternal grandfather, tucking pictures of them in between little bouquets of marigolds and an assortment of candles. It was a tiny thing, my ofrenda. Mine covered a tea tray while the ones at El Mercado in downtown San Antonio are seven feet high and twice as wide. But it was enough. I lit the candles and baked dead bread with a wash of green for the dress and brown curls, and when the day was done, I realized I had processed my grief in a way I had never done before.

I’ve struggled with the idea of appropriating a culture that isn’t mine. After all, I’m not Hispanic. My family didn’t do these things–but the culture in which I was raised did. (San Antonio is more than 50% Hispanic.) Recently I was discussing this with a Latina friend of mine, wondering aloud if I had any claim on these traditions. Her response was that they were actually more mine than hers. Growing up in LA, she hadn’t observed Dia de los Muertos, and the fact that I had taken comfort from the traditions and observed them with respect made them mine. I hope that’s true. Because now when I make an ofrenda and hang my calaveras, I feel connected to my loved ones and am glad to welcome them back–just for the day.