Dia de Los Muertos: A festive time to remember loved ones who have passed
November 4, 2019
Dia de Los Muertos. That’s Spanish for the “Day of the Dead.” If the name doesn’t already say it all, this “holiday” is obviously dedicated to those who are no longer alive, dead, deceased, buried beneath the ground, cremated etc. In all honesty, one would often expect this day to be morbid and depressing, a time of mourning, as the very sound of the word “death” enchants all those around it to droop into a grave mood.
Originally a sacred ritual performed by the Aztecs of ancient Mesoamerica, they were eventually combined with Catholic traditions as the Spanish conquistadores flooded the American plains. By combining the original day of celebration with minor Catholic holidays, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it forms into this unique cultural celebration that lasts from the spooky day of Halloween to the second day of Noviembre.
To be totally honest, Dia de Los Muertos sounds like a Hispanic version of “Halloween” to the average uncultured swine. But it is so much more than that. It is more than dressing up in basic Disney or Marvel costumes, more than prancing from door to door in search of candy from complete strangers and more than just feasting on 75 percent off jumbo packs of Snickers or Kit Kat from Target while binge-watching The Conjuring or Annabelle on Netflix. In fact, it is almost nothing like Halloween. Instead, it is a time in which the gruesome occurrence of death is celebrated as a natural part of life, parallel to human existence and birth.
To the Spaniards and Aztecs, death is most certainly not a bad thing. Which is why the act of mourning death rather than celebrating it is seen as an offensive insult to the deceased in Mexican culture. As a result, Dia de Los Muertos is filled to the brim with colorful ofrendas, delightful treats such as “Pan de Muertos” which is a sweet Mexican bread dusted heavily with sugar and innocent kids painted with elaborate skeletal designs on their face (as one might have seen in Disney’s Coco).
Skulls, or “cráneos” in Spanish, are the main source of decorations, surrounding “ofrendas,” or beautifully decorated altars for the deceased. At a glance, it is almost as if people of Mexican origin are mocking the citizens of the afterlife with these beautiful enhancements and teasing them with foods they can no longer taste. But upon closer inspection, these adornments are a way for the living to celebrate the activities the dead enjoyed during their life.
Spanish and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher, Señora Aurelia Mora described the ofrendas as altars that “are meticulously put together with lovely pictures and objects, and favorite foods of loved ones that have passed away.” She recalls the “many vivid colors and loving memories mounted on the altars, which can take up to days to build.”
As she continued explaining this special tradition, Mrs. Mora did not fail to mention her favorite foods, tamales and champurrado, to eat during this time of the year. Tamales is a Mexican corn dough mixed with a variety of meats wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. And champurrado? That’s a whole other story. A thick Mexican drink that is chocolate-based and served warm, it can almost be described as “Hot Chocolate 2.0.” In other words, it is hot cocoa but better. “It’s like Christmas in October!” exclaimed Mrs. Mora.
But it is not just the fun-filled foods and vibrant fiestas that make these three days great. It is the stories people get to share with their loved ones about those who have passed.
For Mrs. Mora, her aunt, or tía, is the person she possesses the fondest memories of.
“My tía María Santana is my mother’s sister who passed away in Mexico a few years ago,” said Mrs. Mora. “When I was a child and teenager, I always looked forward to visiting her every other summer in Mexico.”
Mrs. Mora remembers her as a humorous woman with a kind heart, described by her family as having a “don,” or “gift.”
Losing a loved one seems terrible and sad, but to Mora and most of the 25 percent Hispanics at Beckman High School who celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, death is a part of life. It is better to honor it with grace and happiness than mourn it with remorse and regret.
Which is why for one particular native Spanish student at Beckman High School, the Day of the Dead is a way for her family members and her to bond together for a few days.
Junior Sarah Sanchez wistfully proclaimed, “[Dia de Los Muertos] is not only about the dead, but about the living, like a new life.”
This supposed “new life” seems pretty marvelous, as it is filled with delectable Spanish foods. Let us not forget those mouthwatering Pan de Muertos.
Yet, despite her positive outlook on this day that honors “a new life,” this time of the year is especially bittersweet, unlike that Mexican sweet bread.
Sanchez celebrates Dia de Los Muertos with her family members as they honor great grandparents who have passed due to Age whisking their lives away. But one single soul who Sanchez celebrates the most is her father.
“His name is Albert Sanchez, and he was hilarious,” Sanchez said. “He had the best sense of humor and a huge sweet tooth. He also was a really good cook.”
Sanchez still remembers the dishes her father cooked for her, her favorite being a Russian dish called stroganoff. Made from noodles, beef and chewy mushroom, one bite of this meal throws her back in time. Sanchez claims that “it was the only time I would eat mushrooms”. Sanchez says this not with regret, but with an aura of satisfaction due to the fact that despite losing someone near and dear to her heart, she still has the chance to honor her late father during this festive time of the year.
Through these heart-wrenching stories, it is evident that throughout one’s life, the life of loved ones is gradually taken away despite our protests. And although this may cause severe heartbreak, time has the ability to heal one’s broken heart, and eventually, the heart may become whole again.
Which is why every year on Dia de Los Muertos, the people of Mexico have the ability to remember those they have lost, and commemorate their deep love for them, as the dead are coaxed out of their eternal sleep and “recalled to life” for 72 hours every year in order to become one again with their living loved ones.