Día de los Muertos, All Soul’s Day, November 1st. In Latino tradition, Día de los Muertos honors our loved ones who have passed with altars laden with flowers, photos, and candles. I first learned of this tradition when I fell in love with Frida Kahlo in my early 20’s. Día de los Muertos is an integral element in our family’s life rhythms. Composing the altar this year felt especially sacred amidst the pandemic and so many people lost. So many new souls honored on the altar by Latinos in the US and throughout Mexico.
Mom’s hope chest creates the foundation for the altar. As I placed each piece, I had to smile. When my Grandma Mary embroidered Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, when my Great-Grandma Grace ground the coffee before dawn in the sod hut on the ranch, never could they have imaged these pieces where they are now. The landscape of our altar reflects the landscape of my life. Yo soy fronterista. I am a woman of the borderlands, as used by Gloría Anzaldúa. My life is one of a fronterista, where worlds overlap: prairie and Southwest, rural and international, landscape literature and linguistic human rights. Here on the altar, prairie and farmland come together with the Southwest; German, Welsh, Irish, and English with Latino; Protestant with Catholic; past with present. The worlds, each with a distinct culture, come together to create the mosaic of the whole.
As I place the flowers for my German Lutheran grandparents, Grandpa Wink and Grandma Anna, I hear my Grandpa Wink saying the Lord’s Prayer in German to delight my cousins and I as children. So many historic heritage languages and cultures fill the altar. Never did the great-grandparents and grandparents that I honor imagine a Día de los Muertos altar. The unimaginable—as I placed each piece, I thought of how very much like this expresses where we find ourselves in life right now around the world.
The altar holds a treasured wine glass of my mom’s mother, Grandma Janet, as Janet’s mother, my Great-Grammie Lucille looks on as a teenager from a black-and-white photo above. The glass rests between St. Agatha, Patron Saint of Breast Cancer, Nurses, and Women’s Issues, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Virgen de Guadalupe (Artist, Jil Gurulé). The beauty and delicacy of the glass reflects Grandma Janet’s life. St. Agatha is new to the altar this year. Breast cancer has touched many women’s lives in my family. My Grandma Janet passed far too young. Her wine glass honors her life, as well as represents my decision to remove wine glasses from my own table on November 1 last year, so I could focus fully on healing.
Corn honors my Uncle Ray, a farmer who lived life with such kindness, generosity, love, and a twinkle in his eye.
In our college community, we unexpectedly lost a well-loved colleague and dear friend. Luke defined himself as a spiritual being, imbued with the traditions of Peru where he lived and climbed for so many years. Eagles represent Spirit. Fly, Luke, fly.
For all of those lost to coronavirus, a collection of leaves I found under the heart-draped tree along my running path, tucked into the bird’s nest.
“Mom, did you make pan de muerto this year?” Wyatt asked me hesitantly on the phone in mid-November last year. It was the first year I had not made Frida Kahlo’s recipe (we use honey from the ranch) for pan de muerto in the kids’ memory. This annual ritual grounds our family. With the health journey of last fall, I did not make the traditional sweet bread. When I realized last year that it was November 1st and I hadn’t made the bread, in an attempt to lift my spirits, Noé said, “Don’t worry. It’s okay. They won’t miss it.” I felt somewhat better in that moment. I also worried that they would not miss it. The sticky dough of pan de muerto helps to hold us together as a family.
When Wyatt asked if I had made, I was overcome with both maternal guilt at not making and a sense of deep gratitude and joy that he had missed! We altered our traditions last year and made when all came home for Thanksgiving. The spirits were just fine with that. This mommy’s heart smiled to watch all gathered yet again around the counter, creating their small figures of dough, sprinkling with colored sugars and decorations, and then the smiles on their faces when they each took that first bite of the bread fresh from the oven.
Noé’s parents, Amadeo and Manuela Villarreal, always center our altar. I was not fortunate enough to meet them. We missed each other by a few years. Their spirits remain alive through the countless stories of laughter, hard work, family love and dedication, and irrepressible and irreverent senses of humor! How I wish I had been blessed to sit around the kitchen table, drinking coffee from the pot that was always full, to hear of their lives and their stories. Whenever Manuela is described, the sentence usually ends with, “She was quite the character! No la tenía miedo de nada.(She wasn’t scared of anything).” When Amadeo passed, he pointed to the corner of the room and told his kids gathered around, “Allí está tu mamá. Viene por mí.” (“There is your mom. She’s come for me.”)
Treasures through the generation grace the altar. Mom gave Grandma Mary’s blue glass flower vase to her friend, Mary Ann, who then gave it to me many years later.
I received a photo that so reflects el Día de los Muertos for Latino children in the US this year. Noah’s mom, Patricia, sent me this photo and wrote, “Living always in two cultures—Harry Potter and Día de los Muertos. Here Noah connects for his morning meeting in elementary school online.”
Our Dia de los Muertos books, collected through the years and well-worn.
A page from Frida’s journal:
I had very mixed feelings when I first heard about the movie “Coco.” Disney producing a movie about Day of the Dead, thoughts of cultural appropriation ran rampant through my mind. There are no princesses in the Day of the Dead. I was anxious when we sat to watch, in much the same way I’m anxious when I start a movie of a book I have loved, worried that the movie will mar the beauty and power of the original. I was delighted to discover a beautiful honoring of this sacred tradition. “This makes me think of my parents,” Noé said when the movie ended, a tear rolling down his cheek.
Trees of Life are often found on Día de los Muertos altars. We received desperately needed moisture through snow earlier this week, as seen here through a Tree of Life.
As I composed the altar and lit the candles this year, I gave thanks to each person represented and all they brought to our lives. We all live with the weight of 2020, the isolation, the restrictions, the lockdowns, the unknown. All lend an extra resonance to the creation of the altar and an honoring of how we are not alone and how the love and lives of others continue in our own.
As I placed each piece, lit each candle, arranged the flowers, memories of each washed over and through me.
While our loved ones pass, their love does not die.
Their love lives on through us and into the lives of those we love.