The campo (countryside) is a blanket of tiny yellow flowers called cempasuchitl or wild marigolds that come up in southern Mexico this time of year. It’s less than a week before Day of the Dead here in Oaxaca. Preparations have begun.
My friend Guadalupe was at the casita yesterday and she explained that the intense yellow color of the wild marigold signals the dead to return to earth for Dia de los Muertos. That’s why they are a prominent part of altars.
The dead like color, she says, and the strong scent of the marigolds. Lupe also said that the bees make a deep yellow honey from the wild marigolds this time of year and this can be special addition to the altar.
I started to gather and build my altar yesterday. It is not yet complete. Front and center is a photo of our dad who passed in 1997. As I duplicated the photo, cut foam board and secured it to the photo, I had a sense of well-being, connection and loving memory. It is a meaningful experience to make a memory altar to honor a loved one who is no longer here.
Our dad was a teacher in the Los Angeles City School District for over thirty years. He went out on strike once to protest a wage cut. I remember our mom was scared because there would be no income until he went back to work. Our family was still young and with three children. Even so, he chose to stick to his principles. He was the son of immigrants and knew the importance of a fair wage and decent working conditions. This is our favorite photo of him.
This altar is a tribute to him.
It is somewhat typical of Teotitlan del Valle altars. It has the favorite food and beverages that the deceased liked. Bread. Chocolate. Fruit. Nuts. A soft drink and/or a bottle of beer. Perhaps a bowl of atole. Our parents weren’t drinkers, but on occasion our dad would enjoy a beer. I’m sure in his lifetime he had a Victoria when we went out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. So here it is along with my artisanal mezcal collection in garafones (hand-blown bottles).
There is more to add. The palm fronds used for arches that allow the dead to enter earth from the underworld won’t be available until later this week. I will wait to get fresh marigolds for November 1. I’ve already prepared the copal incense burner. The aroma also helps guide the spirits home. Lupe says I need to add peanuts even though I have pecans. Maybe I’ll put a marigold arch over the front doorway.
Day of the Dead is a pre-Hispanic tradition that blends into All Saints and All Souls Days which some also mistakenly refer to in the U.S.A. as Halloween. It isn’t Halloween here, said my friend Danny Hernandez. Some of the locals are not happy that the occasion is moving away from the traditional celebration toward the commercial with spiders, bats and Jack O’Lanterns.
My experience in building this altar is to reaffirm that Day of the Dead is for anyone who wants to create something very tangible and joyful to remember a loved one. This is a personal and community tribute to the continuity of life each step of the way. In my world, I see it as ecumenical and non-denominational.
Here in Teotitlan del Valle people will welcome their deceased into their homes on November 1 with a meal of chicken tamales with yellow mole. On November 2 they will return to the cemetery to help guide the spirits’ return to the underworld after the 3 p.m. lunch. During this 24-hour period, they will receive visitors and make visits to family and friends with altar gifts of chocolate, Pan de Muertos, beer and mezcal to honor family and loved ones.
P.S. Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle who work with natural dyes collect cempasuchitl this time of year and hang it to dry. It makes a beautiful yellow dye on wool and silk. When over-dyed with indigo, it is the color of the corn leaves in the photo above.