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Remembering The Dead PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia   
Thursday, 01 November 2012 07:12


Javier Verdin remembers going with his family to spend the day at the cemetery on Nov. 2, the "Day of the Dead" (Día de los Muertos), a Mexican tradition that dates back to pre-colonial times and today gains increasing prominence on this side of the border.

"We would put the altars at the cemetery. You had to go to the cemetery and clean the tomb. You would sing the songs that they (the dead) liked," the Panorama City resident recalled.

Verdin no longer spends the day at the cemetery on this day, but said he keeps the tradition alive.

The Nayarit, Mexico native still puts the ofrenda (altar) at his home in honor of loved ones who've passed away.

"We just lost a family relative and we already put up the altar at home," he said. "We do this in honor of our family members.

"It (the tradition) gives us an identity as Mexicans. It shows us the duality of life and death."

Known in Nahuatl (the Aztec language) as Hanal Pixán, Día de los Muertos traces its history back to before the Spanish arrival in America. Today it is one of the more revered traditions in Mexico, characterized primarily by altars that families create at home or at their loved ones' tombs on Nov. 2.

In many rural areas, families take flowers, food, drinks and other items the deceased liked in life and spend the day at cemeteries remembering loved ones and honoring them.

Lara Medina, a Chicana/o Studies professor at California State University, Northridge who specializes in religion and traditions, said this commemoration goes back to indigenous people in Mexico who dedicated two months of the year to honor the dead: one month for children and one for adults. Those times coincided with the Catholic celebrations of All Souls, and both celebrations were fused together.

For Medina, "it's a very important tradition" to continue, and it's "deeply" spiritual.

"It's a tradition where we honor our past and share with the living. It's especially important in these times that don't always offer these opportunities to bring families together," Medina said.

A central part of the Día de los Muertos traditions are ofrendas featuring calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls), marigold flowers, papel picado (shredded paper) and the colors purple (representing mourning), white (hope) and pink (celebration).

The idea is that those strong colors catch the eye of those who have died and connect them with those who come and visit their families on this day. The altars must also have items representing all four elements of life – earth, wind, fire and water.

"Earth because it is what feeds us, air because it is what we breathe, water because it is what we drink and fire because it is the light," noted Verdin, who's had interesting responses to the altars he creates at his home.

"One time, we were doing the altar and we ordered pizza. When we opened the door, the delivery guy saw the skulls, the candles and all that and dropped the pizza and ran out thinking we were doing some witchcraft or I don't know," he recalled.

But to him, there's nothing scary about it.

"It's a celebration of life," Verdin said. "We learn to live and sing with the dead. I think it's very nice to learn what our ancestors left, and on that day we light their path and guide them back. I don't know if you believe that they actually return to our homes or not on that day, but it's nice to think that here's something I did for you (your loved ones)."

Even though marketing dollars and tradition gives Halloween a higher standing in the United States, Día de los Muertos is nonetheless a revered custom, particularly among migrant communities, because it reinforces their ties to their native countries.

"A lot of people, they'll see all the skulls and death and they confuse it with Halloween," said Mike Mariscal, a merchant at Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, which every year puts on a "Novenario," a nineday celebration where every night people dressed as death, skeletons and the famous "Catrina" (a female skeleton), parade through the plaza in a candlelight procession to the sound of Aztec music, followed by a piñata and bread and champurrado giveaway.

Mariscal said Olvera Street began organizing the Novenario 25 years ago, and it is one of their most anticipated and attended events. Between 3,000 and 4,000 kids attend workshops, where they are taught mask and necklace making and the history of Día de los Muertos.

"It's an event we felt was needed because many people think it's only Halloween. But we educate them. We show them that this celebration is about respect and remembering your loved ones gone too soon," he said.

"Every community has some type of this celebration where you honor those who have died, it's just called different names."

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 November 2012 07:17