Tag Archives: day of the dead

Happy Halloween and Chicken Pozole for Dia de los Muertos

A friend told me this week that she heard from her Mexican relatives that this time of year offers the most transparent veil in the atmosphere, which is why the spirits can more easily return. Welcome to Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead.

The difunta paddling home through the veil of transparency, by Josefina Aguilar

We do Halloween up big here in the USA. One day. Trick-or-treat. Spend billions on the holiday (costumes, candy, decor) and most of us have no idea of the origins. In Latin countries — the Americas and southern Europe — where Catholicism took hold, the season gives us three days to honor and remember loved ones and ancestors, many who we did not know but appreciate for our heritage.

Searing poblano chiles on the comal iron griddle I brought from Mexico

I’m preparing for Dia de los Muertos on November 2, when the spirits return to their graves. I’ve ordered a mix of fresh tamales and pan de muerto from La Superior. I’ve shopped at the best Latino supermarket, Compare, fully stocked with all needs Mexico. I’ll make slaw and apple pie, using my mom’s pie recipe.

Removing the skin from the poblano pepper: use a paring knife lightly scraping

My menu includes pozole verde with chicken (see Serious Eats recipe) that I will start today. I’m a make-it-up-as-you-go-along cook. I usually consult several recipes, look at the ingredients I prefer (they always vary according to who is cooking), and then go at it. Innovation is important to me.

Here is a good one from Epicurious.

De-vein and remove seeds, stem

The stock for the pozole verde (click for Bon Appetit recipe) is a tomatillo, onion, garlic, carrot, chili poblano, Mexican oregano, and bay leaf base. I simmered all these ingredients together first for about an hour. Warning: the poblano needs to be charred on a griddle or over a gas flame to peel off the tough skin.

Soak peppers in water for 10 minutes to remove heat, drain

Tomorrow, I’ll add the hominy that I will have soaked overnight and then cooked. I’ll also add cooked organic chicken leg meat, using the stock for the base, and shredding the meat off the bone. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Dried hominy. Soak it, then cook it, or buy canned

Slice poblanos and add to pot. Simmer until carrots are fork tender.

Garnish with sliced radishes, shredded cabbage, and thin sliced jalapeño peppers. Ready to eat. When prepared a few days in advance, the flavors have a chance to mingle!

Mexican spices from La Superior

You can actually add the seasonings and hominy to the base above, simmer for flavor development, and keep the chicken aside to satisfy the vegetarians.

Watch the heat. Use peppers for garnish to accommodate taste.

Food is comfort and memory. This is why we love the celebration of holidays, to remember the meals around the table, who was with us. We remember Halloween for costumes (homemade, then), whether we could fill the bag completely with candy, where we went for the best neighborhood hand-outs.

Panteon Xoxocotlan I, Dia de los Muertos 2010

I add a eucalyptus (bay) leaf to the stock. I remember the rustling of the eucalyptus trees in the wind that bounded the vast orange tree orchard across the street from where I lived in the San Fernando Valley. That was when the orchards of oranges, lemons and walnuts were plentiful, before the great migration of settlement that turned it all to concrete. I was scared. The aroma was heady, the kids held each others’ hands. The time when parents had little to worry about when the treat was an apple.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos, 2015

What do you remember?

 

 

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.

Chiapas Notebook: Maya Cemetery at Romerillo

The day is cloudy, overcast. A mist hangs on the hills like a coverlet. It’s late February, still chilly with winter in the Chiapas Highlands. Fuzzy wool cape weather, even in the early afternoon. After our visit to Tenejapa for the Thursday market, we make a stop at Romerillo before returning to San Cristobal de las Casas.

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From the road, the Romerillo Maya cemetery, majestic

Romerillo is a tiny hamlet with an impressive cemetery. The stand of turquoise blue Maya crosses carved with ancient symbols are sentries, erect on the crest of the hill. Tethered sheep graze at the base. We get out of the van and walk slowly to enter sacred space.

Pine planks cover the mounds so the dead stay where they belong

We moved in a matter of a few miles from textile sensory overload to quiet meditation. After our guide introduces us to the Maya world of death and life, we each walk silently, separating, alone, stepping across dried pine needles, around the mounds of earth designating grave sites. There are things to think about.

Four ancestors share this grave, each buried at ten-year intervals

One of us gets a call to come home to tend to her mother’s dying. Another suddenly loses a brother-in-law just days before. Most of us quietly mourn a parent, a husband, friend, perhaps a child, a relationship.

The cemetery site is rocky, uneven, steep, protected, festive

It’s months past the Day of the Dead season. There are remnants of marigolds, fresh fruit dried by the sun,  graves covered by wood planks to keep the dead secure in their underworld habitat until the next uncovering.

People drink fizzy Coca Cola at ceremonies. Burping is the voice of gods.

The mounded burial ground: scattered pine needles, dried pine boughs tied to the Maya crosses, toppled flower pots, an empty coke bottle, a tossed aside cigarette butt, an overturned flask once filled with pox (pronounced posh), a fresh grave.

(Mary Randall reminds me that the Romerillo hill was featured in the indie film, El Norte, a testimony to the Maya struggle for independent identity.)

Toppled urns of dried flowers. All disintegrates (except plastic).

How do I know of this recent burial? From the lingering aroma of copal incense, scattered green pine needles, flowers still too fragrant in their urns.

Grand vistas from 7,000 feet high, ethereal

Life and death blend together in Maya ritual. The mounds bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Fresh pine boughs are the portal to the other world. There is afterlife, often reincarnation depending on status. Memory must be kept, attended to. Here is ancestor worship — generations buried in the same space. The pine needles represent infinity, too numerous to count.

By February, pine boughs have dried crusty brown, stay until next year

The blue and green crosses are symbols, too, portals of entry for contact with the ancestors. Mayans believe the ancestors are guides and give them counsel in their problems when asked. Blue is significant throughout the Maya world.

Inscription at the base of a giant Maya cross

On November 1, Day of the Dead, family members lift off the wood planks. Sit around the grave sites of their loved ones, carry on a conversation. There are elaborate rituals here that bring people closer to the natural world.  The sun, moon, earth, stars are imbued with meaning, embedded in all that exists. Everything has a purpose, is connected.

Our groups hears the explanations, wants to disperse

Some of us sit. Others walk. The tall crosses guard the land. Small crosses guard each grave. Sometimes I see several crosses marking one grave site. I know from my experience in Oaxaca that each identifies one person in this resting place, that ten years must pass before another can be buried in the same space. There is continuity on this path.

Small crosses designate each grave site

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