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Keeping Día de los Muertos Alive for Younger Generations

Some Mexican children grew up not celebrating Día de los Muetos in the United States with their families. This is something many would like to change, however, as they learned about it later in life, and want their own kids to experience it. Some traditions get lost throughout generations, and it takes someone to be proactive to go back and learn the significance of these cultural events.

It was October in the mid-’90s in San Diego when I walked into a novelty shop in Hillcrest called Babette Schwartz. It sold unique greeting cards and gifts and instantly became one of my favorite stores. I noticed a series of small dioramas near the Halloween decorations — colorful little wooden boxes with miniature figures inside them, each depicting a different scene. There was a group of men drinking in a bar, another with members of a mariachi group playing their instruments and another with a wedding party. Instead of people, they were all skeletons inside the tiny settings.

This was the art community’s way of bringing Día de los Muertos to the mainstream. But in Latin America, it was nothing new. Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, the same days many Catholics celebrate All Souls’ Day.

When I spent Nov. 1 in Tijuana at the city’s cemetery on Día de los Muertos, I witnessed what the holiday meant to those who truly celebrate it. There was a party-like atmosphere. Dozens of balloon and flower vendors were busy tending to customers outside the gate. Inside, families gathered at gravestones cleaning and decorating them with love and care. Mariachis were belting out popular ballads, and people were picnicking with their deceased loved ones alongside their graves.

In 2004, my then-boyfriend Luis, from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, taught me to make an altar of my own. This was new to me, because my family never celebrated the holiday.

I watched him as he carefully created a beautiful arc made from palm leaves and branches. He wrapped it with beautiful bright orange marigolds. The scent of the flowers, he told me, brings the spirits of the dead back home on these special days. Children arrive on Nov. 1, known as Día de los Inocentes, or the day of the little angels. Nov. 2 is dedicated to adults.

We dotted the altar with dozens of candles, illuminating the faces of our departed in the darkness. He stressed the importance of the light, saying it provides a path to help the muertos find their way back.

I dug up photos of my grandparents. Because without the photo Luis said, “they can’t come, they are not allowed passage.” I placed my grandma Beatriz, next to her sister, tía Nelly, and my great- grandma Juanita on the altar. Next to them, my beloved tía Chelo and my primo Arthur. Luis told me to place ofrendas, little offerings that meant something special to each of them. I put a bingo chip for tía, and a guitar for cousin Art. Next to my Grandma B, a photo of her favorite artist, Julio Iglesias. For tía Nelly, a photo of her crush, Elvis Presley.

Luis made homemade mole. We served it to our spiritual guests along with pan muerto, fruit, cafecito, beer, and tequila. We put coins, cigarettes, candy and toys on the colorful cloth which hung from the tiers of the altar.

We even made a place for my cats. Mittens, and Jedi got a bowl of their favorite food and toy.

Luis placed photos of his family and friends, including his infant baby brother, Julio Erick, and two famous surfers. He placed little surfboards and a beer for each of the guys.

Sadly, year after year our altar grew.

And while tradition varies from family to family, many elders say the recently departed must rest their soul for a year before coming back, even if you honor them on an altar.

For thousands of people who saw loved ones slip away in 2020, COVID-19 robbed us of hand-holding and bedside embraces. It didn’t allow anyone, including me, to properly mourn at funerals. I lost my beloved amigo, news photographer Eugene Stanback, in Chicago. He’s one of 228,000 people who lost his life to this cruel disease. I didn’t get to say goodbye.

As advised by scholars and elders, I will let their souls rest. Next year I’ll have a tribute to Eugene, the honorable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, Little Richard and Eddie Van Halen.

Mostly, what I’ve learned is that the cycle of life is cruel. Tomorrow is not promised. And because we are human, losing someone special hurts. Our hearts burn with sadness inside. But doesn’t it make sense to celebrate people’s lives after mourning their deaths?

I’ve taught my children to embrace this tradition. I hope they continue to do so.

Perhaps Día de los Muertos will give all of us a way to find closure and help heal our broken hearts. 


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