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I knew the spirit of Day of the Dead long before I ever heard its name. As a child, I participated in honoring dead ancestors when our family made the annual trip to Jalcocotan, the small Mexican village where my parents grew up.
It was there, as a kid, that I first joined the procession up the hill to the overcrowded cemetery to show respect to loved ones I’d never met. We cleaned their tombstones, some more ornate than others — some of white marble, others lined with blue tile. Some of my ancestors lie in mausoleums and others are buried under simple metal crosses. We’d place flowers by their names and light Virgen de Guadalupe or St. Jude candles.
My favorite part of visiting the cemetery was stopping at my father’s parents’ memorial, leaving them special treats and notes so they knew I’d been there. Then, after these observances, we’d sit for hours in their last resting place. Sometimes we’d listen to music, other times we’d sit quietly and listen to the breeze blowing through the mango trees.
In Mexico, the custom of honoring the dead has its roots in both indigenous and imported Spanish culture. Día de los Muertos is syncretistic, combining a traditional Aztec celebration with the Catholic church calendar, which recognizes the first two days of November as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. I have come to accept Day of the Dead as a true reflection of my own identity, which includes both indigenous and Spanish ancestors, both Cora (indigenous people) and Christian
Day of the Dead has become widely celebrated, but understandably in the U.S. and Europe there’s also been some pushback about cultural appropriation. Día de los Muertos isn’t meant to be seen as a Mexican version of Halloween, nor should it be treated as merely a whimsical holiday. It is a special tradition that requires respect and humility in the shadow of those who’ve gone before us. But it’s also an observance that is beautifully rich with decor and music.
At home in St. Louis, I practice other customs as a way to stay close to my culture, my ancestors, and my aspirations for my life. As I move around from city to city, farther away from my family and our native home of California, I honor the dead and the living by creating a new altar each year that I leave up all year. For me, having an altar in my home is a reminder of who I am and where I came from. Traditionally, an altar consists of consist of marigolds, papel picado, and pan dulce. They are not religious, nor an object of worship, but rather a symbol and reminder of my origins. Ofrendas (special tokens on the altar) are included to show our deceased loved ones how much we care about them. We include items that they may like, or that they enjoyed while they were living as a way to bring their spirit back to us. I include a variety of special items such as tequila (or any form of alcohol), rosaries, and crucifixes as well. It helps me feel connected to both my past and my future. This year as a new St. Louis resident, I even included a Cardinals-themed sugar skull on my altar to pay homage to my new city.
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For non-Latinos that wish to celebrate Day of the Dead, the best way to honor the day is to first learn as much as you can about it. I recommend reading The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer or The Remembering Day / El dia de los Muertos by Pat Mora, Robert Casilla, and Gabriela Baeza Ventura before you begin any Day of the Dead celebrations of your own because, for a lot of us, the day is deeply meaningful and deserves your respect.
When I am not in Mexico to celebrate the Day of the Dead, I celebrate it wherever I am by buying marigolds and pan dulce, decorating my altar with colorful papel picado, and thinking about who and what I am honoring this year. Whether it is a loved one that passed or a dream that didn’t come true, Día de los Muertos is a reminder that joy and peace come through the act of intentional remembering. And remembering is a vitally important act for all of us.