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Mexican Chef Reconnects with Roots Later in Life

Mexican-American chef Marcela Valladolid began building a Día de los Muertos altar for her mother several years ago, but originally felt disconnected from this tradition. Like many others, her family didn't participate in Day of the Dead celebrations, mainly because her parents were strict Catholics. Slowly, this tradition has become more important to her as she's reconnected with her roots.

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When she began building a Day of the Dead altar for her mother about seven years ago, Marcela Valladolid didn’t immediately have a connection — emotional or otherwise — with the annual tradition.

“I grew up with strict Catholic parents, so building an altar rooted in pre-Hispanic Aztec tradition wasn’t a part of our traditions,” recalled the Chula Vista-based chef, author and TV personality whose mother passed away 12 years ago. “Oddly enough, because I am a Mexican chef, I kept being asked to participate in events and press on the U.S. side of the border to use this holiday to promote products or services. I felt disconnected from that part of my culture and those opportunities felt opportunistic and inauthentic, so I began to really study and understand what Dia de Muertos truly is about.

“Little by little, the tradition has now become one of the most important days of the year for me. The altar for her actually stays up almost a month, and I feel her presence the most during this season,” Valladolid said of her mother, Maria de la Luz Rodriguez de Valladolid, whose photo as a young girl graces the altar.

This past week, Valladolid once again was busy creating an altar in observance of the holiday, observed on Nov. 1 and 2. She took some time to talk to us about the inspirations behind this massive annual undertaking, which this year also served as a backdrop for a segment on “Access Hollywood.”

Q: When you were coming up with the concept, what was the inspiration for it?

A: This year, because of the more neutral color palette, it may seem that I am breaking away from tradition. But the truth is, the more colorful altars are a result of the modernization of the ritual. There is a small town, for example, outside of Puebla called Huaquechula, and in that small town, altars are completely white and lean more towards the Catholic tradition. My first thought was to actually focus on this tradition and go full white, but so many of the clay elements I wanted to add came in that raw clay color, so it became a color palette of clays and neutrals with the pop of the traditional cempasúchil (marigold) flower. In researching, I did find many altars, both traditional and modern, that forgo the more common color explosion and focus on warm earthy tones. Within that, it was fairly easy to find the traditional elements that have to exist on an altar: pan de Muertos, salt, water, papel picado, candles, saints, copal, etc.

Also, most traditional altars come in either one, two, three or seven levels. I chose three and went the very non-traditional way of making my actual dining table one of the layers. The first one, the Earth layer, is where the ofrendas (food offerings) are placed, and it made sense because that’s where I would serve my mother’s favorite dishes to my family when they come over to celebrate and honor her life and her return.

Q: What was the first thing that came to you when you were in the planning stages?

A: That I wanted this to change the perception of what this holiday is supposed to look like. That Mexico is full of different traditions and ways to celebrate and the U.S. is barely exposed to the tip of the iceberg. It’s complicated to try to bring something perceived as different, especially when so many of us root our own identity in the very specific colors, textures and symbols that come attached with these holidays, but what it means to be Mexican comes in a thousand different shades.

In terms of Dia de Muertos specifically, when asked what is appropriate, I respond that there is no wrong way to honor a loved one, if that is the true intention. And that is exactly what I am doing in our dining room for my mother: honoring her with an altar that holds the work of artisans from all over Mexico, her favorite foods, the Good Shepherd she used to pray to and all of the traditional elements that need to exist in an altar for her to come back on the 2nd because I sincerely do believe that she comes back.

Q: What makes this particular approach to an altar unique and special? 

A: It was important for me to bring pieces from different parts of Mexico. I worked with a company called This Is Latin America that sent me pieces from Oaxaca, like the larger skulls from master ceramist Rufina in Atzompa. The black clay vase is from master ceramist Juan Villavicencio in Tijuana. The garlands are by my friends at Puras Cosas Bonitas in San Diego. The clay candle holders are from Casa de la Cruz in Veracruz. The hand-crafted calla lily candle is from La Huasteca Hidalguense. The cirio candles are from il.lumina in Tijuana and Mexico City. The black ash-covered pan de muerto is from El Molino, an 80-year-old Mexican bakery in Tijuana that has shops all over Mexico. The mariachi family representing the members of my own are a gift from Casa del Angel in Tijuana but originally hand-made in Michoacán, my father’s home state. The skull print is by Phoenix artist Gennaro Garcia, originally from Sonora. Everything means something and is there for a reason.

Q: When a viewer first sees the altar, what do you want them to think of or experience? 

A: Magic. I want them to experience joy and magic. When my neighbor and friend Elizabeth walked into the dining room for the first time, she literally stopped in her tracks and gasped, and I knew it was right. When we lit all the candles for the first time, my photographer Cecilia said she felt that magic. The heat from the candles makes the papel picado (cut-up tissue paper) shift and move and the altar feels alive. Little by little, friends and artists would come by to drop off pieces and what was supposed to be a quick visit always stretched out into a long conversation about why building this for my mother or their family members who have passed is so special to us.

I want anyone who comes into this home to see the loud display of Mexico and our traditions to feel proud and unapologetic about showing all of the beauty of our traditions. I also want them to feel that it’s never too late to slowly start to try and better understand our traditions. Some of us are made to feel like we have to choose a flag or a country. I personally think that’s absolutely ridiculous.

Philip and I, for example, try and teach our children more about what connects us to one another, not what makes us different. We want them to be proud of where they come from and also to be proud of the new traditions that come with being on the U.S. side of the border while being a proud Mexican. The denial of our roots and our history is the denial of our truths. It doesn’t make you less American to fully embrace the gloriously rich history and traditions of our ancestors.

Q: What was the most rewarding part of this experience for you?

A: The involvement and reaction from my children. David, my middle one, took all of my extra pieces and built an altar on his own, right outside of our dining room. They will grow up with a full understanding of Dia de Muertos, far from the stereotypical one fed to them by the media, costumes and the Mexican fiesta section at the party supply store.

Also, to be able to display the work of artisans from across Mexico. To have been able to add a piece from Tijuana — which is my favorite on the altar! — because that is my mom’s hometown and the same for my dad and the piece from Michoacán.

Q: What was the most challenging part? 

A: Editing. I’m certainly not a minimalist and have collected so many pieces by now and love them all so much that it’s like picking which of your children get to go to the ball and which ones have to stay home! It’s a long process for me. It takes me a couple of weeks, and in those couple of weeks, my family has to carefully navigate the space that I am decorating because all of the elements are spread out for me to see. Little by little, I add and sometimes take away until I start to feel it come alive. The altar tells me what it wants and needs. It speaks to me, and I just kind of go with the flow, very slowly. The challenge now is how to top this next year! I am positively certain this is my mom’s favorite altar so far!

In terms of the tradition, I wanted this altar to truly give you a sense of celebrating love and light, hence the white. There’s a part of me that needs to see the magic and wonder in everything. That things be whimsical is a personal need. I have a strong reaction to those kinds of experiences. They sometimes move me to tears. I want that to happen when people stand in front of this altar. To see the love from a child to her mother in an attempt to honor her in the most magnificent way I knew how centered on a tradition that has been around for thousands of years.

Q: This has been a true labor of love, and now you have inspired others to take their own journey honoring their loved ones.

A: My Instagram — @chefmarcela — has been bombarded with messages and tags from people that have been inspired to build an altar and embrace the tradition for the first time. Now, more than ever, we need to show the pride in our heritage and these traditions are a very powerful way to show that pride. Hundreds of photos of altars built on both sides of the border, many of them from families just now beginning to understood and value the beauty and depth of our traditions. The whole experience has been amazing.

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