My earliest memories and the source of my affinity for Dia de los Muertos, or in English – Day of the Dead, centered on a childhood trip to Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. My dad hooked our Mallard travel trailer to the family station wagon and drove our clan of nine from Indiana all the way to Mexico City and back. Along our loop through our neighbor to the south, we were able to enjoy landscapes from desert to mountain forests, scenes and people both city and rural. That trip is a parenting feat that still boggles my mind.
As we visited towns all over Mexico but first in Guadalajara, I discovered calacas – the skeleton figures dressed in festival attire or costumed skeleton Mariachi bands. I still have a couple of calaca band members standing on my window sill at home.
Ever since my first meeting with the festive little skeletons, I’ve been intrigued with Dia de los Muertos. Through the years, I’ve learned only a bit more about the special day and yet have always felt drawn to the traditions beyond just the calacas, traditions that go back 3,000 years to the rituals of the Aztecs. I checked in with my friend Ale Young who grew up in northern Mexico to try and understand the celebration more. While the celebration is more prevalent in central and southern parts of the country and into Central America, Dia de los Muertos is Ale’s favorite holiday.
Dia de los Muertos is not a Mexican version of Halloween. The day, or three days really, is about remembering and honoring the dead on a personal level. Observances usually start at midnight on October 31 and can continue through November 2. Like so many other cultures including Christianity, Confucianism, and Shinto who also venerate their ancestors, this celebration is about welcoming the souls of our loved ones back to our world to talk, visit, and enjoy the foods that our dearly departed enjoyed during life.
Preparations begin a few days in advance as families prepare an altar to their loved ones. The “altar” must be a table so that there’s room for relatives to bring food for the celebration. Special sweet orange cake, “pan de muerto,” will be baked and set out along with photos of the deceased, candles, flowers (especially the cenpasuchitl or Mexican marigold), and personal possessions. Other traditions include making colorfully decorated sugar skulls, graveside vigils, grave cleaning and decorating, and sharing stories of the dead.
As Ale reminisced she shared, “I remember feeling like the day gave us a great excuse to think and talk about our loved ones and remember good times mostly, and cry shamelessly, all the while enjoying a great meal.”
This is my kind of holiday. As my years go by, I appreciate more and more the simple celebrations of the lives that have passed from my world. I like the thought of a memorial meal as a setting for a reunion with a special soul from my past.
Veneration of those who went before us is a big part of what we do here at the Owen County Community Foundation every day. We establish permanent funds that serve as a worldly, working memorial to someone now gone from day to day life here in Owen County. We receive many gifts in honor of the deceased and we celebrate the lives of those memorialized right along with the donors who make the gifts. We may not have special cake or little skeletons, but we have set up memorial funds like altars to serve as a place where others can join together to honor the souls of so many wonderful people.
I’ll leave you with a Dia de los Muertos greeting. Ahi viene la calaca tilica y flaca! [Translation: “Here comes the bony, skinny skeleton!”] I wish for you a pleasant visit with the souls of those lost to your daily life. “Gracias,” to Ale Young for sharing her memories of this special holiday.
Your Owen County Community Foundation is committed to helping our communities become better places to live, grow, and work. We value community involvement and charitable spirit.
If you would like to know more about how you can work with your local Owen County Community Foundation to venerate the lives of your loved ones passed, give me a call at 812-829-1725, email me at email@example.com, visit us online at our Facebook page or www.owencountycf.org, or stop by and visit us in our new office at 60 E. Market Street on the south side of the Courthouse Square in Spencer.