Tag Archives: altar

Explaining Day of the Dead to Friends

Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos — is one of the many Mexican holidays that blend Spanish Catholicism with pre-Hispanic, indigenous mystical rites. Despite political rhetoric, with a culturally permeable border, Halloween has crept into Mexico and sugar skulls have crept into the U.S.

My friend Sue said, I thought Day of the Dead was on November 1.

That is when it starts, I replied. It continues through midnight, November 2, when we accompany the spirits of our loved ones back to the cemetery, and sit at the gravesite with them to ensure a tranquil return to their eternal resting place. 

November 1 is All Saints Day.

November 2 is All Souls Day.

My Durham, NC, altar — under construction. What’s missing?

On October 31, All Hallows Eve or Halloween, with Celtic origin, there are children’s masquerades in Oaxaca to remember the young ones who have left earth at an early age.

Sunflower bouquet, NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh

In the village where I live, Teotitlan del Valle, Day of the Dead conjures up a celebration of life and its continuum. Death is merely a continuation of life. We see this greca symbol woven in the rugs and interpreted as the steps through life, from infancy to adulthood to old age to death and then the pattern repeats. Circular. Continuous.

There is something reassuring and elemental about this, which is why I love this spiritual approach to living and dying, why it is easy for me to build an altar and celebrate the lives of my ancestors.

Rows of pumpkins, squash and gourds at NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh

This time of year also conjures up abundance. Altars are filled with bread, chocolate, fruits, beverages and edibles that the deceased persons we honor enjoyed. It is harvest time, when the sun sets early and we want to cozy up with our memories.

There are photos now of our loved ones on the altar. But not long ago, before access to cameras in small villages, people sat on the floor with altars on the floor, slept on the floor atop handwoven palm leaf petates.

Hot Tamale! or Habanero Heaven at NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh

They conjured up their memories, visions of the deceased. They lit candles and kept the flame burning for 24-hours. They lit copal incense to entice dead spirits back to earth for a visit with the heady aroma. They cut wild marigolds, also called Mexican mint marigold or winter marigold, a variety of tarragon, and put them in gourd vases, another scent to bring the ancestors home.

My own altar is now under construction. It will be finished by November 1.  On November 2, from Durham, North Carolina, I will sit with the memories of my parents, Dorothy and Ben, light candles and copal, honor them.

Rooster crown, or cockscomb, is as popular as marigolds in Oaxaca

On November 2, in Teotitlan del Valle, my friends and neighbors will share a comida midday meal with the spirit world. At 3:00 p.m. the church bells that have been tolling continuously for 24 hours will stop.

Families will then go to the cemetery, sit quietly, drink beer and mezcal, bring an evening meal, consider the meaning of life and death. Their ancestors graves will one day become theirs. The plots are familial; graves are recycled every ten years to accept the body of another, old bones moved aside to make way. A reassurance.

These Calacas came to the Raleigh Art Space from Mexico in time for Muertos

Many spiritual traditions have an annual day of memory. In mine, we light a 24-hour candle on the anniversary of a parent’s death. I will do that, too. It is good to always remember.

Altar at NC Art Space honor organic food and the farmers who grow it

Wherever you live, I bet you can assemble your own altar. Look for farmer’s markets, Mexican groceries, art centers that want to merge multicultural practice to promote appreciation.  The papel picado came from a local gift shop. The sugar skulls from the local Mexican sweet shop. What’s missing? Pan de muertos. I’ll buy that next week.

 

 

 

Getting Ready for Day of the Dead in Durham, NC

Durham, North Carolina is a long way from Oaxaca, Mexico — or so it seems. So many Latino families live in our region that while it is not as easy to construct a traditional Day of the Dead altar, it is not impossible.

Dia de los Muertos paper goods ordered from Amazon

Recently, I discovered La Superior Super Tienda Y Taqueria in the Braggtown section of Durham, about two miles north of downtown on Roxboro Road. This supermarket is filled with almost every Mexican branded food you can think of. The fresh meat market stocks chicken, pork, beef and chorizo, plus chicharrones and other parts that Mexicans use in their cooking.

Sugar skulls from Dulceria Estrellita, Durham

The bakery is filled with Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread), as well as concha rolls and other treats we only see in Mexico. The shelves hold Mexican chocolate (though not as good as Ernestina’s homemade Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca chocolate), and fresh and dried chilis and spices.

Catrina sculpture by Josefina Aguilar to adorn my altar

It is heaven for someone like me.

Oaxaca: The Day of the Dead from Bob Krist on Vimeo.

Almost every town in the USA has some Latino people living there or nearby. Hunt down the grocery store near you to get ready for Muertos.

Mezcal and oranges are a necessity.

In the neighborhood, while making at stop at La Monarca Michoacana for a traditional Mexican ice cream cone, I found the sweet shop next door, Dulceria Estrellitas.

And, amaranth honey bars called Alegria, from Dulceria Estrellita

There, I was able to find sugar skulls and cacahuates Japoneses — Japanese style peanuts coated in a crunchy, spicy sugar-coating that Mexicans love. The dulceria is filled with party treats and everything Mexican kids love for stuffing birthday piñatas. After hunting around, I also found amaranth honey bars called Dulce de Alegria (or Alegrias), too.

Arkansas Red apples from Laura and Bryan’s East Asheville farm

Then, I had to get onto Amazon to find skull design napkins, plates, and cups. Easy and fast delivery.

To the altar, I’ll add fresh marigolds and small squash that I’ll get at the Raleigh farmer’s market tomorrow afternoon, plus photos of my mom and dad, my dad’s favorite beverage — a beer, my mom’s favorite beverage — tea.  I’ll light the Teotitlan del Valle beeswax candles to illuminate the path to return for the visit, offer copal incense to guide them here.

Papel picado, cut out tissue paper flags, add a festive touch to home

Muertos is a harvest holiday, a memory holiday, a time of honoring our ancestors. It’s pre-Hispanic roots harken back to a time before photos, when people slept on petate mats on the floor and altars were at ground level.

Muertos is not Halloween, although the Spanish attempted to meld it into All Saints and All Souls Day. It is not to be feared. Death is a circle, part of life, and all Zapotecs I know embrace it.

A couple, united in death, as in life, by Josefina Aguilar

On November 2, when everyone is assembled at the Teotitlan del Valle panteon (cemetery), I’ll be here in Durham, raising a toast to life and its continuity. This is why I believe that Dia de los Muertos is universal, to be appreciated.

Kali’s 2017 altar to my parents in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

 

Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, Coming Soon

It’s time to turn my attention to the annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — when memories return to the people we love who have dropped their bodies and whose souls rest in peace.

In this PBS Series, Borders, this story of Latinos celebrating Day of the Dead in Los Angeles warms my heart and helps bridge cultural understanding.

Thanks to my friend Carol Lynne Estes for sharing this with me so I can share it with you.

On October 28, I’ll participate with friends in a Raleigh, NC, Day of the Dead 5K Race to raise funds for the Brentwood Boys and Girls Club of Raleigh. I plan to wear my Day of the Dead T-Shirt acquired years ago from deceased artist Arnulfo Mendoza at La Mano Magica in Oaxaca. His family always gathers graveside in Teotitlan del Valle to celebrate his life.

Then, later that night, a celebration with my friend Barbara S. and her husband.

I’m thinking about where to build my altar  at home in Durham, a tradition to celebrate the life and memory of my parents, Dorothy Schafitz and Ben Beerstein. I’m thinking of a candlelit and flower-strewn path of marigold petals leading to a fall harvest table laden with oranges, flowers and mezcal.

Will you be in Oaxaca for Christmas?

Come with me on a one-day cultural immersion.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

I find Day of the Dead to be a soothing, multi-cultural approach to honoring memory with traditional Mexican fiesta style. It fits well into my world view of attending to the spiritual part of being human, a hankering for mysticism in a concrete jungle, and remembering ancestors, giving thanks to them for the life they created in us.

Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

Soon, I’ll investigate my local Mexican markets and convenience stores where I might be able to find some of the necessities for altar making and not succumb to the Halloween frenzy.

May the preparations begin.

Preparing for Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead is coming soon. Festivities in Oaxaca will begin in the next few days, and people are now gathering what they need for home altars to honor their deceased loved ones:

  • palm branches to create an arch over the altar through which loved ones pass from the otherworld — a gateway to now
  • smokey copal incense that provides the aroma to guide the way
  • candles that burn continuously to offer light along the journey
  • fresh flowers, especially marigolds, a seasonal offering with a pungent aroma to guide the spirits
Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

  • bread, chocolate, fruit and nuts for the spirit visitors to eat
  • favorite beverages of those who have passed on and will return: hot chocolate, beer, mezcal, whiskey, coca-cola, Fanta orange, atole
  • framed photographs of those who have died (it wasn’t until the 70’s or 80’s, I’m told, that most locals had cameras to capture images)

 See Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Facebook

 

Oaxaca street parades will start on October 30.

On October 31, the Xoxocotlan panteon (cemetery) will host locals and tourists who come from around the world to experience the reverie and revelry of Muertos. I like to start at the old cemetery around mid-afternoon to be present at the magic hour of sunset.

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

On November 1, there are many cemetery festivities, at San Pablo Villa de Mitla in the morning and in the evening at the Oaxaca city Panteon, and in San Augustin Etla.

On November 2, in Teotitlan del Valle, the low-key ceremonies of honoring the dead begin with a mid-afternoon meal at home to ensure the dead return to their graves with full bellies. The villagers then accompany the spirits to the the cemetery (around 6 p.m. ) and sit with them through the night to be certain they are cared for and rest in peace.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

On November 3, in San Antonino Castillo de Velasco, the flower growing village, holds their Day of the Dead celebrations after they have cut and sold cockscomb, marigolds, lilies and more to surrounding villages and city dwellers.

You might also want to add Santa Maria Atzompa to your itinerary.

Sand paintings, part of the tradition,  Muertos

Sand paintings, part of the tradition, Muertos

These are not created as tourist attractions but exist as part of ancient pre-Hispanic ritual in many parts of Mexico. Oaxaca has one of the most vibrant Day of the Dead celebrations.

Locals and seasoned Oaxaca travelers continue the search for the undiscovered Day of the Dead celebration where few tourists descend. The farther from the city, the more likely this is to occur.

Still life with marigolds, Teotitlan del Valle market

Still life with marigolds, Teotitlan del Valle market

I’m in North Carolina with my friend Hettie, and have with me photos of my parents and copal incense. I’ll start making my memory altar in the next few days. Meanwhile, my Teotitlan del Valle family will light incense and place marigolds at the gate to my home to welcome the spirits and guide them back under the shadow of Picacho.

 See Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Facebook

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

After I built my altar last year, our 99-1/2 year-old mom took a downward turn and I left Oaxaca for California. She died on November 15, 2016. I return to California next week to join my family to lay the headstone on her grave just before the anniversary of her death, a ritual that is part of my religious tradition.

This year, my altar will hold them both. I will sit and honor their lives.

Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, April 16, 2013

Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, April 16, 2013

 

 

 

On The Road, Again: Leaving Oaxaca, Hello North Carolina, California and India

If I had Willie Nelson’s voice and guitar picking skills, I’d give you a personal performance. But, my elementary school glee club (mandatory) teacher asked me to mouth the words. You might like to hear him sing, once again.

Willie Sings: On The Road Again

I left Oaxaca early this morning and now overnight in my Mexico City hotel. Tomorrow morning I take off for North Carolina to vote. Yes, VOTE! I’m doing this in person because I want my vote to count this year. I have to do a legal voter registration name change in person before I can do early voting. This is really important because NC is a swing state. My vote matters.

See who I’m voting for!   As if you couldn’t guess. Smile.

There’s also Colie and Brad’s wedding this weekend. She’s my dear friend Hollie’s daughter and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I also get time with all my great NC pals Kathryn, Hettie, Karen and Steve, Cindy, Chris, Kate, Helen, Anne, Jo-Ann and Ted, Debbie, Judith, Robin, Kaola, Lew and Olive, and so many more …… Can’t wait.

The children's comparsa, Muertos

The children’s comparsa, Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca

Next, I go to California to visit my son, and then our family gathers to lay the headstone on our mother’s grave in Santa Cruz. This will mark the first anniversary of her death on November 15, and in our religious tradition there is an important ceremony of remembrance.

The Old Cemetery, Xoxocotlan--Day of the Dead

The Old Cemetery, Xoxocotlan–Day of the Dead

My plan is to build a Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos Altar in North Carolina to remember my parents. I have the copal incense and photos packed in my luggage.

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

On November 15, I fly to New Delhi, India, where I’ll meet up with Fay Sims from Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Oaxaca has given me many blessings. I met Fay in Oaxaca and we have traveled to Chiapas together, so we figured we would make good travel partners for India. We’ll be there for a month, focusing on the textile culture of Gujarat, including block printing with indigo dyes.

Example, Gujarat Block Print with Indigo

My first cousin Sharon and my aunt, my mother’s younger sister now age 98, also live in Delhi, and I’m excited to see them again after a many year lapse.

I plan to blog, photograph and write about Indian and Oaxacan textiles from a comparative point-of-view.

When I return to Los Angeles, my son and I will fly together back to Oaxaca just in time for Christmas.

You’ll hear from me intermittently over the next few weeks as I settle into living out of a suitcase once again.

Participate in the Dia de los Muertos–Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Mexico Travel Photography.