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Día de los Muertos

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In Mexico the lines are long to enter the cemeteries.  In Torreón, Coahuila where the majority of my family lives, people take a basket of fruta (mangos, guava, tuna, tamarindo), flowers,  pan de muertos which is a simple recipe (main ingredients: milk, butter, flour, sugar and anise seeds). Everyone goes.  Of course, lately, with the violence in Coahuila, my cousin Anita has been telling me that the crowds are not like they used to be but people still go.

One year when I was 12 or 13, Anita and I made our own versions of the pan de muertos.  We shaped them into figures from Mexican history.  I remember taking a long time shaping the body and head of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  This is much before she became known in the U.S. (when Margaret Sayers Peden translated Octavio Paz's 1988 book on Sor Juana or later, when Alicia Gaspar de Alba's wonderful Second Dream was published). I had grown up with Sor Juana.  Instead of reading me fairytales, my mother's version of a bedtime story was reciting (from memory) Sor Juana Inés poems.  Imagine my little seven-year-old mind listening to "Hombres Necios" (translation:  "Foolish Men")!  On that day, I remember Anita busily shaping the flour into Ricardo Rodríguez, brother to Pedro who became the famous racing driver. She would end up marrying a racing driver (hardly famous) who had a day job and who died of a heart attack not many years after they married.  

Today Anita remains a widow and its been a while since I've visited the familia in Torreón.  Many aunts and uncles, cousins and comadres have died and today is the day to remember them all.  We create altares with their pictures, fill the altares with candles, food, pictures, whatever helps us remember. Many indigenous groups in Mexico have done this for 3,000 years:  Zapotec, Mixtec, Purepecha, Totonac, etc.  The ritual has survived and continues to thrive in many areas outside of Latin America.  It is a day when we can commune with those who have died.  

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On my altar I include statues from other spiritual beliefs.  I have the Azteca goddess, Coatlicue on one side (goddess of life and death), and the Buddhist goddess Kuan Yin on the other.  Kuan Yin is represented as female but can change forms.  She is the goddess of compassion, of keen perception, mindfulness, knowledge.  I also include pictures of my familia, and of skeletons dancing and singing.  

A couple of years ago, I was in San Antonio and loved visiting the schools there.  Teachers and students had created various altares.  Some were altares for those killed in the Iraq War, altares for cancer victims, altares for those who have died from complications of diabetes, altares for grandmothers, for grandfathers, altares for those who died too young.  

What I love most about Day of the Dead is how people create their honoring of the dead.  It is their way to commune with their loved ones and with their communities.  And these rituals have made their way to North America.  In Lincoln, the Sheldon Art Museum has a number of activities planned.  Day of the Dead is also celebrated in various areas of Latin America.  These dancing skeletons below, for example, do not come from Mexico.  They are Peruvian Day of the Dead musicians!  

Living in Nebraska, where the change in season is marked (compared to my Los Angeles hometown), I can visually see the November earth changing, dying, transforming into Mictlan (realm of the dead):  leaves turning a fire red, falling, leaving skeletal branches, a barren landscape--but not completely gone never to return again. The dancing skeletons below remind me that life is intertwined within this scene.  Life and death are one.  

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