I love October. Not only is it the month of crispy leaves and long shadows, it is also when we get to celebrate Día De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Similarly known as All Souls Day in the Catholic tradition, this holiday is dedicated specifically to reaching out to those close to us who have crossed over.
Bay Area Reclaiming holds a public ritual to celebrate Samhain, an older Pagan celebration that marks the “thinning of the veil” between the living and those who have passed. All of these traditions mirror more ancient ones that focus on ensuring that our ancestors are well in spirit so that they do not wreak havoc in the world of the Living. The essence is that In the re-membering and celebrating — we put the pieces and parts of who we are back together and we can live more enriched and fulfilling lives.
This year our family is building our biggest altar de ofrendas ever, to celebrate. This picture, above, shows only a section of the larger installation we have been constructing in our Living Room. We gather family members to make paper flowers, and other multi-colored pinwheel flowers and decorations for the altar. The official dates are October 31 through November 2, but the altar takes weeks to prepare!
If you’ve seen the movie Coco or been to local Bay Area Día De Los Muertos ofrenda displays, like the one at the Oakland Art Museum’s Annual Day of the Dead Celebration, you are likely familiar with the traditional Mexican color scheme, featuring the golden-orange color of the marigolds (sometimes called Flor de Muerto in Mexico).
In Guatemala, where Ernesto is from, the colors for the altars are white, pink and blue, and cemeteries are decorated from top to bottom in elaborate displays. In 1996, on my first visit to Guatemala, my plane landed in Guatemala City on Halloween. I took a bus to the northern Department called Petén. All along the way, we passed the already-colorful cemeteries come alive with people, food, and decorations. It was clear to me that this culture’s relationship with death is very different from mine.
Ernesto’s parents are buried nearby in Colma, and while the American cemeteries don’t paint their mausoleums blue, pink, and purple you can still find large turnouts for Day of the Dead as families gather to visit their people, eat, drink and adorn the gravestones with offerings of flowers and food.
Growing up our family observed the “holy”-day of All Souls Day. Every November 2nd, we would go to the cemetery and visit the graves of our relatives, and place flowers, and we would also bring flowers to a random grave — because these folks need to be remembered and honored, too!