In my Mexican culture, we celebrate Dia De Los Muertos on Nov. 1. The heavens open up and the spirit of the littlest angels (children) are believed to come down to visit with their families for 24 hours. Adult spirits come to celebrate on Nov. 2. Preparations for their anticipated arrival starts on Oct. 31.
On these days family members tend to relatives' graves and picnic at the cemeteries. It is a time of reunion for families living and dead with songs, personal offerings, and prayers for all souls. They are invited to return for a while to the world of the living as honored guests.
In an environment of community support, it can also be a time for healing the void left by the absence of a beloved who has died.
In the Hispanic culture, children are not sheltered from the reality of death. In the Spanish language, there are no euphemisms such as "he passed away" or "he passed on" and such. Children attend funerals regardless of their age. Death is talked about openly.
Youngsters are taught to mock death. On Day of the Dead, children break open the piñatas (a decorated pottery jar) made in the likeness of death (skulls, skeletons) to find sweet candy treats. In this way, they hold to the belief that death has its own reward and nothing for the faithful to fear.
In many homes alters are built and decorated with candles, marigolds, cut paper designs (like paper streamers) and photos of their loved ones. And of course, as with any celebration, special foods are prepared, especially breads and cookies in the likeness of calaveras. Candy skulls and bones are made of chocolate and white sugar. Each little skull bears the name of the deceased across its forehead to honor them.
I was eight years old on one of my visits to my abuela’s house in El Paso, Texas across the border from Juaraz, Mexico. I remember the night when she and I walked in the noisy parade. The streets were filled with vendors selling brightly-decorated death masks, charm bracelets, pocket-size toy caskets, skeleton puppets dressed in everyday clothing. Many religious artifacts were sold as well. I held tightly to my abuela’s hand.
"This is scary, Abuelita. Can we go home now?" I pleaded.
She explained to me, "No! Nina, no one is going to get out of this world alive. This day reminds us not to take things of this world too seriously for everything in it is temporary. The dead can not hurt you. It is the living that can harm.”
It wasn't until I became an adult and attended a museum of Latin art that I read the following and realized what she tried to have me understand on that day, so many years ago: "The Day of the Dead is a victory of sorts, not over death, but over the fear of death."
Through the ages, every culture has found a way to deal with the inevitable. I saw a documentary on death. It showed an Irish wake where mourners were wailing, followed by music, laughter and drink. And in New Orleans party revelers took to the street behind a slow-moving hearse with a Dixieland band playing joyous music in procession.
My abuela was right, there is no escaping death. We might as well make peace with it in our own way. Though it may sound like an oxymoron, the Day of the Dead is really a celebration of life.
Like other Christians, Latinos believe that death is a continuation of the cycle of life in a different realm. The Day of the Dead is a time of reflection, and inner peace as well as reunion. It is not "Trick or Treat."
I look forward to attending Downey’s 5th Annual Dia de Los Muertos this Sunday. I urge my friends and neighbors to join me there for this special community event.