originally posted 10/20/2010
Growing up in a little town of Jalisco, México, El Día de los Muertos was the celebration I looked forward to each year. During the last week of October and first week of November the city dressed in beautiful colors with papel picado, Calaveras, and tons of sweet treats and flower shops on every corner. I would save my lunch money for months just so I could buy Calaveras de Azucar (sugar skulls), other day of the dead sweets, and paper mache Calacas to add to my collection.
Every city in México celebrates El Día de los Muertos in a different way, adding their own traditions and uniqueness. In my hometown the preparations started during the first weeks of October. I remember being assigned Day of the Dead craft and art projects at school to decorate the classroom and the school’s altar. Every school and government office would set up it’s own altar and organize a mini celebration (such as skits, dances, etc.). On November 1st instead of having class, we would go around the city visiting the different altares and asking for Calaveritas, or candy (trick or treating anyone?).
November 2nd is the main day of the dead celebration in my hometown. I remember waking up at 6am to go and clean our family’s grave. We would spend most of the day at the cemetery, sitting by my auntie’s grave. The cemetery was a couple of blocks away from my house so it was easy for us to stay there most of the day. Some people take their food and have a “picnic” right there on their family’s graves, sharing their meal with their loved ones. It is believed that during the first two days of November there is a “door” open that allows the spirits of our loved ones to come and visit. Family members prepare an “altar”, with offerings for their muertos, such as their favorite meal, so they can come and enjoy it for that one day. Either to eat at the cemetery or for the altar, people usually prepare the favorite meals of those who have passed on in remembrance.
My family never had picnics at the cemetery, mostly because we would divide our time between my auntie’s grave and my great grandma’s, which is at another cemetery on the opposite side of the town. However, in other states of Mexico it is customary to eat at the cemetery that day, accompanying those who come to visit us from the other world.
The family would take turns visiting the cemeteries and taking colorful flowers to decorate the graves, and we would all go to mass together in the evening. I loved hearing stories about my auntie or my great grandma from family members, it was like they never left. We also got to see several family members that lived out of town, something that only happened a few times a year.
I remember buying a small bouquet of cempazuchitl (marigold) each year and going around the cemetery leaving a flower on the graves that no one visited. It always made me sad to think that the spirits of those people were visiting that night and they were going to find their grave empty!
In the last few years, my hometown has been organizing parades, altar contests, and guided tours of the cemeteries at night! It is a wonderful way to get young people and kids are to learn about our traditions.
I wish you could get inside my memories just so you could see the cemetery full of life, colors, and smell the aroma of the cempazuchitl and all the other flowers. Many people get a bit scared when I tell them about Día de los Muertos, I guess it is because when they think of “spirits visiting” the first thing that comes to mind is a scary ghost movie. The holiday, however, is a celebration of life! It’s a day dedicated completely to those who have passed on.
I don’t know for sure if they “visit”, if they eat the offerings left out by their family, if they hear them talking about them and the prayers…
But for me, every year when I put up my altar it’s a reminder to myself that I was lucky enough to have met those people or to be part of their families, or simply because I’m inspired by their amazing life story (even if I never got to know them personally). They’re always in my heart, but that one day they also have a special place in my home. I light a candle for my tia Maricela, for being my mom’s accomplice when they were kids and giving her the best childhood memories. For my great grandma Natalia, because she gave birth to my amazing abuelita, and thanks to her I’m here. For my tío Luis, because he raised four wonderful children that remind us every day that no matter what, you need to smile to the world. For my tía Mariela, because she fought cancer for so many years and still managed to raise a happy little boy. For my tío Arturo, my grandma's brother, because my childhood memories are filled with him playing with us. For the Women of Juarez, hoping that one day their murders are going to be solved and there will be justice. For Frida Kahlo, because her art makes me happy and inspires me each day…
That for me is the real meaning of El Día de los Muertos.