October 28, 2005

Día de los Muertos is alive

Tradition of celebrating the dead lives on

By José A. Álvarez

The more details Yvette adds to her sugar skull, the more memories that keep coming to her head. She begins to remember her dead grandmother; the memory of her two miscarriages gets her teary-eyed.

“I’ve lost a couple babies. It’s a form of healing in a way,” said Yvette, who, together with her husband, Michael, spent a recent Saturday afternoon decorating sugar skulls in honor of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. I wanted to show my husband a little more of our traditions. Plus, I thought it would be something fun for us to do together.”


Irene Marquez and Sierra Kriss decorating a sugar skull.

For the past four years, Maribel Siman-DeLucca and her husband, Claudio, have been organizing sugar skull and paper mache decorating workshops at Back from Tomboctou, their retail and wholesale warehouse where they sell Latin American folk art.

“People come to the workshops for different reasons,” said Siman-DeLucca, as she taught 18 adults, teenagers, and children how to make and decorate the traditional sugar skulls. “It’s a fun ritual and some people use it as an opportunity to share our traditions with other people.”

Día de los Muertos began as an Aztec celebration and originally took place in August. Skeletons and skulls were used as symbols for death and rebirth. Instead of fearing death, the Aztecs embraced it and considered it a passage to a higher level of consciousness. When the Spaniards came and Christianized the Aztecs, they incorporated the symbols of the crucifix and devil into the celebration, which the Spaniards moved to November 1st and 2nd to coincide with the Dia de Todos los Santos (All Hallows Eve). 

Today, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America and also in many regions of the United States. It’s a time for people to remember those who passed away. November 1st, or Día de los Angelitos, is the day to remember children and is followed by the traditional Dia de los Muertos.

For both occasions, altars are built with the deceased’s favorite food and drink and candles are lit to light their way home. While the tradition varies from country to country, trinkets or items the deceased were fond of are also placed on the altars. Families often spend time at the cemetery with loved ones, bringing their loved one’s favorite food and drink, along with all the other necessities for a picnic, where the deceased is the guest of honor.

On the altar in honor of her father, Gina Gonzalez places his photo, a pack of his favorite cigarettes, candy, and, of course, he’s beloved racing forms.

“He loved going to the races,” said Gonzalez, who brought her teenage daughter Mia and two friends to the workshop, to pass the tradition along.

Gonzalez used to build the altar on his father’s birthday, but after researching Día de los Muertos for a diversity fair at her job, she learned that November is the correct date.

“We shouldn’t lose our traditions and it’s important that we teach them to our kids,” said Gonzalez, adding that from now on she and her daughter will build an altar on both dates.

Irene Marquez’s granddaughter, Sierra Kriss, loves art, so she brought the six year-old for an afternoon full of glitter, glue, foil, and colorful paints.

“She loves art so I am using this opportunity to teach her about our culture and our traditions,” said Marquez, who every year builds an altar in her daughter’s classroom at Allen Elementary in Bonita. Her granddaughter, who is of Mexican and Caucasian descent, will be helping this year and the two skulls that Sierra decorated will likely be part of the décor.

Celebrating Día de los Muertos appears to be catching on among people of other ethnic groups. This is the second year that Linda Laird has participated in the skull decorating workshop at Tomboctou.

“I like the tradition a lot,” said Laird while she worked on her second skull for the day. These two will join the three she decorated last year and that are part of the altar she keeps at her house throughout the year honoring her ancestors.

Michael, Yvette’s husband, knew very little about Día de los Muertos but is happy to be learning more about his wife’s culture and traditions.

“I thought this would be something fun to do,” he said as he made his skull “as scary as possible…I think this is a good tradition to pass on. I don’t think we do that enough in this country.”

For those interested in learning how to make and decorate sugar skulls, Back from Tomboctou is offering additional workshops October 29 and 30. Call (619) 282-8708 or visit www.backfromtomboctou.com for times and locations. The cost is $15 per person.

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