Altar in Mexico, photo by Carlos Martinez
Altar in Mexico, photo by Carlos Martinez

I write a piece about Day of the Dead every year at this time. It is after all, what I do: my writing is focused on Mexican culture, traditions and cuisine,  What started off as a way to inform my readers about celebrations taking place in Mexico has migrated, quite literally, to reporting on festivities in the U.S and especially in San Francisco. The migration has following the curve of the gentrification of my neighborhood here, in the Mission district. When I first arrived, over 20 years ago, only a very small group of mostly Latino neighbors gathered in Precita Park for a subdued celebration of Dia de Los Muertos. Now and especially over the past couple years, the “parade of souls” is looking a lot more like the answer to the permanent ban, in effect since 2010,  on large scale Halloween parties in The Castro. While reports on the size of the crowd which gathers in the Mission for Dia de Los Muertos vary wildly (some say 10,000, other ten times that), there’s no doubt that the majority of participants are no longer either from the Mission, nor even from San Francisco for that matter, nor  are they Latinos. Molly Sanchez  made the same connection with gentrification in the Mission at this time last year, when she quoted  SF State Ethnic and Latino Studies Professor Teresa Carillo in her piece for in The Bold Italic, entitled Dia de Los Muertos: Appropriation or Appreciation?  “The discussion of Latino customs becoming popularized to broader audiences is especially relevant given the current gentrification of The Mission. To have that appropriation on an economic level be the backdrop of this holiday really accentuates the damage.”

In this country, dressing up for Day of the Dead has become an alternative to costuming for Halloween. This is definitely not a widespread custom in Mexico, where the focus is more on creating altars and visiting the dead at the panteon or cemetery. Photo by Carnaval Studios.
In this country, dressing up for Day of the Dead has become an alternative to costuming for Halloween. This is definitely not a widespread custom in Mexico, where the focus is more on creating altars and visiting the dead at the panteon or cemetery. Photo by Carnaval Studios.

As a columnist for the, I sporadically receive information from PR firms looking to have me promote their product. This year, to my dismay (and for the first time), I received just such an inquiry from a tequila producer, suggesting I write something about Day of the Dead and tequila, informing me that there is a tradition that associates the two and with a flip lead in about “Getting Spooky with tequila cocktail recipe”. My reply:

“While I am very familiar with the Day of the Dead tie-ins to tequila (I am not sure whether you are aware that I co-authored the only book on Mexican fiesta and festival foods), that means putting a bottle of tequila on the altar if tequila was the favorite drink of the departed loved one, not creating fancy new cocktails.. I am remiss to commercialize Day of the Dead, but happy to write something for Halloween”.

Why do so many participate, painting their faces, building altars, carrying candles? Perhaps is what has attracted “gringos” to the holiday is something writer/performer Aya de Leon identified in her post, Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us – Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead“…. “it is completely natural that you would find yourself attracted to The Day of The Dead. This indigenous holiday from Mexico celebrates the loving connection between the living and our departed loved ones that is so deeply missing in Western culture. Who wouldn’t feel moved by intricately and lovingly built altars, beautifully painted skull faces, waterfalls of marigold flowers, fragrant sweet breads and delicious meals for those whom we miss sharing our earthly lives”.

Whatever the motivations of those of us who are not Latina or Latino is, respect must be one of them. For me, one of the elements that separates appropriation from appreciation is that, the ability to appreciate, to treasure the culture in which one is temporarily participating. This means taking the time learn about the meanings, the traditions, the food and the history. It is in that spirit that I share the following,  adapted from the book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, (by this columnist co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl).

Day of the Dead, which is not a day at all, in fact, but in Mexico, a celebration which runs from Oct. 30th through November 2nd, will be celebrated here in San Francisco on Monday, November 2nd with a procession, organized by the Rescue Culture Collective and a Festival of Altars, organized by the Marigold Project, from 6-11pm, Garfield Park, 26th & Harrison Streets.

What is Day of the Dead?

Día de los Muertos is the only modern Mexican festival for which there is conclusive evidence of pre-Hispanic roots. During the month of Xocotlhuetzi, which fell in July and/or August, the Aztecs marked the Great Feast of the Dead. It was the conquering Spaniards who “relocated” the festival to coincide with All Hallows Eve. The Aztec celebration coincided with the harvest of beans, chickpeas, rice, corn, and pumpkin. These foods were part of the offering that was placed at the altar of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, ruler of the afterlife along with her husband, Mictlantecuhtli.  Researchers think that these traditions eventually became conflated with others, which included burying personal objects of the deceased, along with food and offerings.

While the holiday falls almost concurrently with Halloween, and the customs surrounding both events include sweets, skeletons and spirits; that is where the similarity ends. Until recently, there was no dressing in costumes or asking for candy in Mexico (this is something that recent “immigrated” and only occurs in parts of the country). Dia de los Muertos is neither scary, nor somber; it is joyous. The skeletons are not morbid; they are gaily dressed and lively. The spirits are not ghostly phantoms but rather those of the deceased, who are thought to return to visit their early-awaiting families on these special days.

A.Davey - Cemetery on the Day of the Dead in Mexico
A.Davey –
Cemetery on the Day of the Dead in Mexico

Although the seasonal smells and colors of Los Muertos are in evidence everywhere, from the largest city to the most remote rancho, this is a private, family fiesta; a time of reunion and reunification of the living with the dead. There are some regional differences in dates, but generally October 31st or November 1 is Day of the Innocents (Dia de los Santos Inocentes), reserved for spirits of children who have passed, with a special days on October 30th in some parts for children who died before baptism (los niños en limbo). November 1st or 2nd is Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos or Dia de los Difunctos) a day to spend with the spirits of deceased adults.

European or Pre-Columbian Roots
Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival is a living example of what the Church sought to avoid when All Souls Day was established in 13th century Europe; persistent adherence to pre-Christian rituals and attitudes. The Spanish may have introduced the custom of food-offerings to Mexico, whom, in spite of the Church’s efforts to eradicate the tradition, enjoyed feasting with their dead. However, the similarities between pre and post Hispanic traditions in Meso-America make it difficult to trace the origins of specific aspects of the festivities honoring the dead.

Day of the Dead Rituals in Modern Mexico

As Mexican families prepare for the festivities, houses are cleaned and furniture moved so as to have space to build a colorful altar. These altars (altares) are the fruit of a complicated family project, which may begin days, even weeks prior and in which everyone in the family has a role. Almost everyone goes to the cemetery (pantheon) and in some areas of Mexico, even spend the entire night visiting with the spirits of their loved ones, beside their graves. It is not uncommon to picnic at the gravesite. Family members clean up and decorate graves, which attracts vendors to the cemeteries selling flowers and decorations. Others play music to entertain the deceased and their families, hoping to earn a few pesos.

In Mexico, many spend the night in the cemeterys o as to be close to the spirits of departed loved ones. Photo by Greg Willis Day of the Dead in Oaxaca Xoxocotlán - Panteón Antiguo
In Mexico, many spend the night in the cemeterys o as to be close to the spirits of departed loved ones.
Photo by Greg Willis
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
Xoxocotlán – Panteón Antiguo

Day of the Dead Bread
The best Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread) in San Francisco can be found either at La Victoria or La Mejor Panaderia, both within a few blocks of each other in 24th St. in the heart of the Mission. The history of this sweet treat is as fascinating in its folklore as it is in its variety of shape and style. Undoubtedly a European import, (after all, its not cornbread de muertos or tortilla de muertos) the basic ingredients, butter, cane sugar and wheat flour were not known in Meso-America prior to the conquest. However, the animal forms (these breads often resemble turtles, rabbits, and crocodiles) are suggestive of Aztec traditions, in which anthropomorphic figures were formed from amaranth seed dough and eaten. The Bread of the Dead dates back to the conquest years, when the Spaniards first arrived in Meso-America and were terrorized by their discovery of Aztecs rituals of human sacrifice. In one ceremony, they sacrificed a virgin by taking her heart and burying it in a clay pot full of amaranth; the leader of the ceremony would then bite the heart. In an attempt to eliminate this ritual, the Spaniards created bread with a heart shape, coated with red sugar simulating the blood. Their acceptance of this substitute marked the first time the Aztecs gave bread divine attributes, the beginning of a slow transition to Catholicism.

There have been many studies that seek to define the meaning of Pan de Muertos. Some show that, in an effort to keep with Indigenous roots, the four lines usually found atop the bread simulate the four cardinal points of the Aztec calendar, each of which, in turn, relates to one of their four principal deities. Another interpretation of the four lines, more in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church, is that they represent the bones of those who have passed away and the center represents the heart or skull.

Mexican cooking with pumpkin

Enhancing the confusion with Halloween, pumpkin has been an essential part of Day of the Dead ofrendas since Aztec times, when they used the sap of a maguey plant as a sweetener for calabaza. The arrival of the Spanish brought sugar cane, first introduced in Vera Cruz as early as 1524, which changed the was the sweetened pumpkin was prepared. Cooks began to candy the pumpkin by placing it into caldrons called tachas that were used for making sugar. It simmered along with other spices and fruits, resulting in the dish known today as Calabza en Tacha. Another seasonal specialty is Pumpkin Mole. You can find a recipe in our book,  Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes.


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