It is always a great experience to be a part of a new culture and to learn something new. Halloween in the United States usually means dressing up in costumes and children (sometimes teenagers who want free candy) go trick or treating. Other than that, Halloween does not hold much significance to me, besides hoping to toast some pumpkin seeds and eating them, yum! Halloween really hasn't been a holiday that I have participated much in quite a few years. However, this year, I got to experience something completely new, completely different, and absolutely amazing. I am going to walk through the multiple days of celebrating Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with you all, but I just want to start off by saying that I am going to explain the traditions that my family takes part in. I know Dia de los Muertos sometimes means different things for different people, especially what each day represents, so I am going to share with you the traditions of my family here:
My first introduction to Dia de los Muertos began on Friday, October 28th in the afternoon. My abuelita (grandma) invited me to go to Jardin Borda with her to see all the Catrinas and Ofrendas that were going to be set up. Jardin Borda is this beautiful garden in the centro of Cuernavaca that has tons of open space, beautiful trees and flowers, fountains, and is a great area for special events. I graciously accepted the offer to go to Jardin Borda with my abuelita, because I knew she would explain many different cultural aspects that I would not be able to understand if I had gone there alone. We walked through the garden and it was just packed with Catrina after Catrina. Catrinas are figures like skeletons that are dressed up in outfits and are there to represent death. However, just because they represent death, that does not mean they don't represent life as well. They can have smiles or be in whimsical outfits or have some type of symbolism to mean life is here and there is beauty in music, art, and dance. A lot of the Catrinas were made by big groups of people; some even were made in schools. My abuelita made sure that we stopped at each one, examined it, told me what it was made out of, and that I got a picture of them all. Here are two of my favorites that I saw:
This one was made out of seeds, beans, nuts, and little things like that. They even had an umbrella on the side of the Catrina.
I liked this one because I thought it was unique and even had some corn husks to help make the outfit.
Okay, also at Jardin Borda I was able to see my first Ofrenda. An Ofrenda is really an offering to the people who have passed away. They are elegantly decorated with flowers, candles, food, clothing, drinks...etc. Generally they consist of a picture of the person who has died, and a ton of their favorite things. If they used to drink coffee and eat a certain type of pan dulce in the morning, both of those would be in the Ofrenda. The thought is in the night the person who you make the Ofrenda for will come back and enjoy the things they used to love so much. You put all of their favorite things, foods, drinks in the Ofrenda knowing that they only have a short time to return to enjoy their offering. The Ofrendas in Jardin Borda were huge and packed full of stuff. They were all decorated with flower petals in yellows and pinks and reds. It was a beautiful display of love and affection for someone who is held close to the heart.
A picture of an Ofrenda in Jardin Borda
I really enjoyed walking around Jardin Borda with my abuelita, listening to her explain each Catrina and each Ofrenda, and even listening to her tell stories about the Ofrenda she was going to make, and having that spill into memories of her husband who has passed away many years ago. I guess my abuelita enjoyed her time with me as well in Jardin Borda, because we ended up going back again on Sunday. We were sitting around the table after comida and she invited me to go to Jardin Borda with her. Needless to say, I was confused and politely questioned her by saying that I thought we had already went there on Friday afternoon. She confidently told me that one time wasn't enough for me, I should definitely go again, and she would go with me, and we would bring my little sister, Lilian, along with us. So, I got to go to Jardin Borda twice, and take pictures of the same Catrinas twice, because my abuelita insisted, and I guess that is one way to really soak in the culture. However, I was very happy to go back the second time because I got to see even more Catrinas that were not set up on Friday, and also they had a lot of tables of artists selling lots of beautiful things. My abuelita even bought Lilian and I bracelets with our names put on them, it was really cute and sweet.
A picture of my abuelita and Lilian in front of a Catrina (note: this is the same Catrina as before, haha, I do have double pictures of most of the Catrinas)
That was the beginning of my Dia de los Muertos cultural adventure. The first day of the actual celebration of Dia de los Muertos begins on October 31st in the evening. This is meant to be the time to remember those who have passed away due to an accident of some sort. Many people will put up their ofrendas in their houses starting October 31st in the night, and will leave them up until November 2nd in the afternoon or evening. The first of November is the day to remember children who have passed away. And November 2nd, which is the most celebrated day of Dia de los Muertos and almost everyone has off work for this day, is to remember the adults and older people who have passed away.
On November 1st in the night, my family took me to a town called Ocotepec. It is nearby Cuernavaca, so not too far from me, and it is a smaller town that really goes all out for Dia de los Muertos when it comes to ofrendas. My family told me that it was beautiful to see these grand Ofrendas, and they were excited to take me there for my first time. I wasn't quite sure what to expect when we parked the car and started walking around the town, but I could say with confidence that I was not expecting what I saw. Not only were the streets crowded with people waiting in lines to walk into a house, when you actually got into the house, the rooms were so packed with fruits, pictures, bread, clothing, candles, flowers... that it was difficult sometimes to walk around the Ofrenda without stepping on something on the side. Not every house in Ocotepec had large ofrendas set up, and I asked Norma (my host mom) why some were just completely filled with things, and why others were smaller. She told me that many times if someone has passed away in the past year and has not been back for a Dia de los Muertos Ofrenda celebration, then their first Ofrenda is the largest one they will get. There were signs that said "Bienvenidos a tu casa" (Welcome to your house) and that was because it was their first time back to their house since they have passed away. After you would walk in the house, you could give more candles or flowers to the family members so they could add more things to the Ofrenda if you wanted to. And, as you would walk out of the house, there would be large tables of coffee, pan dulce, or tamales for you to take as a "thank you" for visiting the house. This was the only time that I was reminded of Halloween and somewhat trick-or-treating, but this was more of a "thank you" gift for paying respects to their loved ones, than a "I want candy" gift, ha. Everyone in Ocotepec who set up these large Ofrendas really were showing and sharing a part of their lives with all the visitors. They were letting us into their family, giving us an idea about what the person was like, and appreciating us being a part of the hopeful return of their family member. It really was an unique experience.
An Ofrenda in a house in Ocotepec
My host family in Ocotepec: Felix (my dad), Norma (my mom) and Lilian (my sister) :)
After we left Ocotepec, we drove to McDonalds to pick up a hamburger and french fries and a Coke for the Ofrenda for Norma's dad who passed away a significant amount of years ago. I guess he really enjoyed a hamburger from McDonalds, so that was something that was necessary in his Ofrenda. When we got home, we wrapped the hamburger and fries in plastic wrap and put them on top of a beautiful purple table covering, alongside of candy, flowers, candles, and a small bottle of tequila. Every time a gust of wind would come into the house, that was supposed to be a sign that the grandpa was coming in to see his Ofrenda and thank the family for putting one up for him.
On November 2nd, I was invited to go to the cemetery with my family. I wasn't sure if it was going to be something they would want me to go to, because I am technically not a part of their family and I know situations like these can be very personal and very nostalgic. However, I was quite excited that they invited me and I said yes because I was really interested in seeing the cemetery. We brought about 8 bouquets of flowers with us to put on the gravesite. As we were driving to the cemetery, I put my cellphone on silent, and was ready to be really quiet and respectful of family members who my family loved so much. I was even preparing myself to see either my family members (especially my grandma) or even other people in the cemetery crying by the gravesite of their loved ones. However, the second we pulled up the gravesite and got out of the car, all my expectations were thrown out the window. There was a band. A large band. With loud, happy, and celebratory music. Children were running around, people were crowding around the graves and putting flowers around their loved ones and taking the petals and putting them in the shape of a cross. I think my face clearly showed that I looked confused, but I did ask Norma why it was so happy because I thought it was going to be such a sad event. She told me that this holiday is more of a celebration than a sad memory. Yes, it can be hard to bring back memories of your loved one who is no longer alive, but this is a way to remember them, keep them in your heart, and celebrate their life, not mourn their death. I thought it was a great way to explain this holiday and it brought a whole new depth for me.
One more reflection from Dia de los Muertos came from the sermon in church on Sunday morning. The pastor was talking about the holiday that just happened on Wednesday and asked the congregation what it was called. When people responded "dia de los muertos" he said they were wrong. I was confused, because, well, I thought it was Dia de los Muertos too. He then talked for quite a while how it really isn't Day of the Dead but Day of the Living. Just because their earthly body is gone, that does not mean they are dead, because they are alive and well with Jesus. Once again, it was a whole new perspective on Dia de los Muertos for me, and really reinforced how it is a celebration of the person's life, not sadness because they are gone, because they aren't actually gone forever. This is a beautiful holiday, full of love and remembrance, and I feel blessed to have been a part of it with my family here.