Happy Dia de los Muertos, Friends,
And happy Halloween! I cannot tell you the difficulties I have had in preparing this post and the video I did for it on YouTube. Talk about trick-or-treat. I have spent this entire day trying to make the video and take the photos. Every time I started to record myself, there would be some hocus pocus.
The neighbor’s dog would bark non-stop, my wind chime would begin tinkling. The neighbor across the street sat in his car revving the engine, the neighbor beside him opened and closed his garage door, a motorcycle sped up and down the street, and UPS and FedEx were making non-stop deliveries. Then once I got a video I which I was half-way coherent, all of my photos and videos on my phone vanished. Think abracadabra, poof…they’re gone.
Bippity Boppity Boo
But just has I had begun banging my head against the wall, – bippity boppity boo – my photos and videos reappeared. And I was able to upload my video and access my pictures again. Have decided it was my 3 year-old nephew Andrew, who died of Wilms Tumor in November, 1991, returning from the other side to play tricks on me.
October 31st was not only Halloween, but the day of the angelitos, after all. According to the traditional dia de los muertos celebration, October 31st is the only day of the year that the spirits of children can return to earth. And Andrew always plays tricks on me when he visits his altar.
Dia de los Muertos
Although the name of this holiday is dia de los muertos, one dia=one day, it is actually a three day celebration that originated in Mexico. I first learned about it when we moved to El Paso. My students were talking as much about this holiday, that begins on 10.31 and goes through 11.02, as they were Halloween. My initial reaction was shock. I misunderstood and thought it was a celebration of death. But quite the opposite is true. Dia de los muertos is the celebration of life and love for departed family and friends. Think the movie “Coco.” Once I realized the beauty of the celebration and the symbolism of the objects on the altars created for those who have passed, I fell in love with this holiday.
And when Andrew died shortly after 9-11, I began putting together annual altars in his honor in the libraries where I worked. Sadly, my students, most of whom were Mexican or Mexican-American knew something of the celebration but didn’t know the beauty and symbolism behind it. So it became my ‘mission’ to learn what I could and share with my students and their families. Often my altars became community altars for everyone. On 10.31, we remember the children, on 11.01 we remember the adults and on 11.02 families meet at the cemetery for picnics, festivities and to clean the tombstone of their loved ones.
Each year, I gather many of the same items to build an altar in remembrance of my nephew, Andrew. But I try to add something new to change things up a bit, too. I put my altar together outside by my front door this year. It was the perfect place!
On the bottom level of the altar, I have placed things that Andrew would need after crossing over from the other side.
Jabon y Agua
It is said that the spirits are hot and tired and dusty when they return to earth, so I placed a bowl of water, a bar of soap and a hand towel on the altar so Andrew can wash up.
Pan de Muertos
Also known as bread of the dead, this bread is baked in the shape of a skull or round with bone shaped pieces of dough in a cross on top. The sugar dusting on top of the bread represents the soil. I bought some of the round pan de muertos. Put one piece on my altar and ate the rest. How cool is this skull shaped bread, though? Just too big to be altar-friendly.
Sal y Un Vaso de Agua
I understand that crossing over from the other side is thirsty work. So a glass of water is left on the altar to quench the spirits’ thirst. Salt is sprinkled in the shape of a cross on the altar. It is said to also help relieve their thirst and to purify them.
These sugar skulls represent the deceased for whom the altar is created. Made of granulated sugar, meringue and water, the skulls are decorated with icing and sequins or bits of shiny foil. Often times the names of the departed are written in icing on the forehead of the skull. I made a skull this fall at the El Paso Museum of History but it was blown off my altar and broke. Or, was it Andrew playing his tricks?
The skull above it the one I made along with a tissue paper flower of the dead, a marigold. I was given the calavera below by one of my teachers. Candy is used on children’s altars to entice them back to earth.
Flor de Muerto
Marigolds or cempasuchitl are the flowers of the dead. Because of their pungent odor, marigolds are believed to help lead spirits back to their altars. The blooms are often put together in the shape of an arch. And sometimes marigold petals are strewn from the door of the house to the altar to help spirits find their way. I used tissue paper marigolds and real marigolds on my altar for Andrew.
Incienso de Copal y Velas
Resin from the copal tree is used to make incense. The sticks of incense are lit on the altar and the sweet fragrance helps to guide the spirits.
Candles or velas are also placed on the lower tier of the altar to light the angels’ way. I used a combination of artificial tea lights and prayer candles on mine.
Papel picado or pecked paper is tissue paper hung in a banner or garland across the altar. This form of Mexican folk art features intricate designs cut into the paper. Because of the light weight of the tissue paper, the banners flutter in the slightest breeze and represent the element of air on the altar. I have purchased a plastic version of papel picado because it holds up better in our El Paso gusts.
The upper levels of the altar hold items that were dear to the deceased. Food they liked to eat, sentimental objects and photographs. Andrew loved Batman. So I have added Batman party plates for him to use in eating his pan de muerto. And Batman flip-flops for his feet. A Batman trick-or-treat bucket became the planter for my marigolds.
His favorite food was Chick-fil-a which he called “chicken leg.” The folks at the Spring, Texas Chick-fil-a were wonderful to Andrew, providing him with all the chicken he could eat free of charge.
Our boy also loved Buzz Lightyear which was sadly prophetic as he was often caught jumping off furniture and saying “to infinity and beyond.” That sweet angel.
And the mardi gras beads. The first time I saw Andrew after his cancer diagnosis, we were all out to eat and our food was taking forever. Poor baby became irritable. I remembered I had some marid gras beads in my purse so pulled them out for a quick distraction. Andrew spent much of the rest of the meal putting the mardi gras beads over my head, taking them off and then putting them on his head. He was only about 18 months old when he was diagnosed. Still such a baby and to be so sick.
Andrew has now returned to the other side and today the adult angels make their way to earth. Sometimes I replace the tributes to Andrew with items for my father who died 05.2012. But it is hard to pack away Andrew’s things for another year. I do know, however, that someday we will meet again.
Are you familiar with dia de los muertos? Isn’t a beautiful ceremony? For whom would you create an altar and what would you use on it? If you have an extra minute, I’d like to invite you to stop by to read a post I wrote a few years back that talks more about Andrew’s cancer diagnosis and struggles, here.
It has taken the better part of two days to put this post together with all the hiccups. But I have persevered. I took the photo below after I realized why I was having so much trouble. It was just Andrew!
Hope that picture doesn’t give you bad dreams!
Hugs and kisses,