GROWING UP, WE WOULD HAVE ALTARS AT OUR HOME in Marina during this time of year. A few weeks ago I noticed a void in my room – it was missing some energy. I made an altar for myabuelito out of stuff I had around that reminds me of him.
There’s a velador, a candle commonly found at Latino grocery stores with the printed image of the only saint I know (La Virgen de Guadaplupe); a belt with a horse pattern for his love of the rancho lifestyle; and some cookies I brought back from Cuba. He had a sweet tooth. I don’t have any photos of him. My grandpa said that each photo taken of you takes a little piece of your soul. And this thing we do where we commemorate our dead pre-dates photography by thousands of years. It even pre-dates Christianity and cemeteries.
Initially when I would look at the altar at the end of my day, it made me sad. I would look at these objects and get teary-eyed over flashbacks.
In the first few days after putting up the improvised altar I found myself wishing I could speak with him again. One more conversation to hear one more story, one more joke or one more piece of guidance.
To want more out of the past is a European-centric way of thinking, maybe. To be mindful is to be content with the present and what brought us here.
So when I look at the altar now I don’t want more. I’m savoring the memories of someone who lived an inspiring life. I remember a man who shared stories of seeing soldiers kill all the cows in his pueblo when he was a boy, having to leave his family to work as a bracero and being exploited from Texas to Illinois, working in the strawberry fields of Watsonville, hiding in irrigation ditches from police and eating snakes when he was stranded in the Arizona desert. I remember lessons on how to heal everything from stomach aches to a sore throat with nopales, mint and honey. And I remember someone who was always critical of the powerful and those who reinforce them.
My grandpa, Salvador Gutierez Tapia, died in 2016 at 86 years old after a grueling battle with pancreatic cancer.
My grandpa said each photo takes a piece of your soul.
This holiday means so much more to me now than when when I was a child who was simply appreciating the aesthetics of an altar. I’m thankful for my family and community for reminding me that on Día de Los Muertos, we realize that we are truly fortunate to have such great people in our lives.
JUST AS MANY ACCEPTED “CHRISTIAN” CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS were actually taken from Nordic and Native American “pagan” traditions – think boughs of holly, reindeer and mistletoe – so too were the many traditions of Día de los Muertos when it became a Catholic holiday. Today Día de Muertos is celebrated in cemeteries with rituals often involving ofrendas, candles, marigolds and pan de muerto, sugary breads prepared for the holiday. (And since the introduction of Christianity, many families that observe Día de los Muertos also attend a Catholic mass.)
Some 3,000 years ago, Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayans and other indigenous Central Americans began the practice of celebrating their dead. It evolved into a tradition, and many sentiments and customs were shared. For example, Mayans and Aztecs generally believed that their departed ancestors would return on certain days and that death was not the end of life, but rather a part of its cycle. They also both shared offerings and memorialization with altars. And generally after mourning their dead in public, every instance of remembrance was a celebration of their life.
The celebratory spirit survives today, with some people even having fiestas at cemeteries that allow for it. But not all ancient traditions survived the test of time. Aztecs, following their lunar calendar, used to celebrate their dead during the summer, for a period of 20-28 days. Spanish colonists (and later other empires) enslaved and converted indigenous people to Catholicism. With that, the Aztecs’ month-long celebration of the dead was shoehorned into a pre-exisiting Catholic holiday, All Saints and All Souls Day, celebrated for two days, Nov. 1 and 2.
Some customs have endured. The Aztecs, for example, believed in four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Today, things like papel picado – punctured pieces of colorful paper, representing wind and with patterns that allow spirits to travel, are still part of the celebration, as is pan de muerto, which is symbolic of the earth. Marigolds were a flower sacred to Aztecs and Mayans, used for healing, and today are the customary decoration for gravestones.
In Salinas, dozens of families went to Garden of Memories Memorial Park on Nov. 1 and 2 to lay marigolds, photographs and small personal mementos on the headstones of their loved ones.