Celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, el Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is one of Mexico’s most important holidays. Contrary to how it may sound, el Día de los Muertos is a happy occasion and a time when Mexicans remember their loved ones and in a way, make fun of death. Decorations for the holiday often feature skeletons dressed in costume, playing sports and musical instruments, and enjoying everyday life activities.
Born in the modern-day Mexican state of Michoacan, the rituals associated with el Día de los Muertos date back to Aztec times. Mexican families create an altar in their homes, covered with colorful tablecloths and adorned with candles. It is customary to place photographs of the deceased on the altar, along with traditional Día de los Muertos decorations and ofrendas, or offerings. The ofrendas typically include favorite foods of the deceased, candy skulls, and the very special pan de muertos, a sweet bread made with orange peel and anise. The ofrendas are meant to welcome the spirits of friends and relatives back from the dead. The petals of the cempasúchil flower, an orange marigold that the Aztecs used to remember their deceased relatives and obligatory for Día de los Muertos celebrations, are sprinkled on and around the altar.
The altars are usually set up during the last days of October, with celebrations culminating on November 2nd. The family members and friends of the dead recite prayers and poems and tell stories of remembrance while eating the ofrendas, symbolizing their loved ones’ return.
Although traditionally celebrated much more intensely in the interior of Mexico, signs of el Día de los Muertos popped up in Matamoros during the last week. At the school where I teach, I learned that the teachers and students celebrate el Día de los Muertos each year by remembering the life of an influential person. This year, they chose to celebrate the life of Steve Jobs. A good fit, considering that every student’s school supply list includes an iPad. We built an altar in the lunch room and decorated it with Apple products and symbols, food, candles, and cempasúchil petals.
Our very talented art teacher designed an Apple symbol made of powder and marked with a cross made of cempasúchil petals and salt.
M. and I spent part of our afternoon in the city center, hoping to see Día de los Muertos festivities in the town square, but things were rather quiet on this gorgeous sunny and breezy fall afternoon – a stark contrast to the stifling heat and humidity we had yesterday. We sat on a park bench in front of the cathedral and ate fresh coconut sprinkled with lime juice, salt, and salsa.
Last night, following an excellent National Geographic photography exhibit (worthy of its own blog post, featuring photographs taken by the U.S. Presidents’ photographers from the Kennedy through the Obama administrations) that we attended at an art museum downtown, we stopped by our favorite restaurant in Matamoros for a bite to eat. The owner was there and knew some of M.’s colleagues. He visited with us for a while and showed us the altar he had built in the restaurant garden, in memory of his father and brothers.
The last few days have been a great experience in Mexican culture for us. We don’t get to see that a lot here, owing to our physical location so close to the border and, more so, to the security restrictions that prevent us from exploring the city as we would like. We try to take advantage of these opportunities as they come along.
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