An Altar-nate View
Traditions of Día de los Muertos
My elementary school teachers were passionate about preserving the traditions of Mexico, so they taught us about Día de los Muertos at an early age. They feared that this celebration was in real danger of disappearing due to Halloween permeating our daily Mexican culture, and in hindsight, they were right. Thankfully their efforts paid off, as many of my schoolmates and I have continued promoting and celebrating this tradition into adulthood. Almost every year since I moved to Austin in 1984, I've set up an ofrenda. Traveling back to Mexico City and Oaxaca over the years, I have amassed a collection of figurines, papel picado, and other folk art related to the festivities. Thanks to my husband Will Larson's art background, we were invited to present an altar at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center exhibit in San Antonio in 2004, and last year we displayed one at the Mexic-Arte Museum in honor of Lady Bird Johnson. The altars we set up at the house are small and usually dedicated to our departed friends and family, with the occasional addition of admired celebrities and personalities who may have passed away during the year: Julia Child and Joe Strummer have been previous "guests" at our ofrenda and feast. I enjoy cooking traditional dishes often enjoyed in Mexico during the three-day holiday, such as mole, tamales, and candied fruit. I've never made pan de muerto from scratch, but I may try it this year as I now possess a prized recipe from my Aunt Elsa, who passed away a couple of years ago. Curious to know other people's reasons for embracing this holiday, I spoke to a few folks from different backgrounds and professions whom I know celebrate Day of the Dead in one way or another.
Garden designer and writer Lucinda Hutson was born and raised in El Paso, where she absorbed and fell in love with the culture and traditions of Mexico. Over the years, she has traveled many times to Pátzcuro, Michoacán, for Day of the Dead, visiting the graveyards and familiarizing herself with the customs. "Dying is something we all do," she says. "I love the way the Mexicans poke fun at death with their funny figurines and calaveras depicting life on Earth. Live it, love it while you can! You can't take it with you!" Hutson is always ready for a fiesta and is one of the best party hostesses I know. The Día de los Muertos parties and ofrendas at her Rosedale garden home are legendary and have even been featured on PBS' Central Texas Gardener. "I invite guests to bring candles and mementos of their dearly deceased, and we build a big altar in my garden replete with marigolds and candles, fruit and food. I have quite a collection of Day of the Dead figurines, sugar skulls, calaveras, et cetera that I bring out each year," she says. "We have a prayer circle and moment of silence where we honor and remember our loved ones and share stories about them. It is a very moving evening for all who attend – children and adults alike. This is a good way for children to learn about their ancestors." Hutson's guests are treated to Mexican hot chocolate, atole, plenty of Day of the Dead bread from Mi Victoria Bakery, and usually some tequila punch, too. At the moment, Hutson is busy wrapping up the manuscript for the long-awaited second edition of her book ¡Tequila! Cooking With the Spirit of Mexico, to be published by UT Press, so she's not sure she'll be able to have a celebration this year. If it happens, she says, "it will probably be a last-minute thing."
Amber O'Connor is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in Mesoamerican studies, and she's also a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin (formerly Texas Culinary Academy). She focuses her formal studies on foodways, and during the time she spent in Oaxaca learning culinary traditions, she discovered an instant affinity for Día de los Muertos. "Halloween was one of my favorite holidays growing up, and I always loved the feeling that anything might happen," she says. "I think there's a great overlap in traditions in Texas, but also there are shared symbols, which eases acceptance of Day of the Dead traditions." Last fall, during the Mexic-Arte Museum's Viva la Vida Fest, O'Connor presented a fascinating paper about Hanal Pixán, the Yucatecan Maya celebration of the dead, based on research she conducted in Quintana Roo. In her presentation, she mentioned how the fancy decorated altars we know in Central Mexico were not a part of Yucatecan tradition until the government held competitions with cash rewards. "Similar to post-Civil War America's use of Thanksgiving to create a national culture, Mexico chose Día de los Muertos as its nation-building holiday, finding it to be a unifier of indigenous ritual and Christian Spanish heritage and a way to claim a unique identity for Mexico," she writes. "While government involvement has changed the nature of small traditions into a large-scale national holiday with newly codified symbols and meaning, it has possibly increased the practice of traditional foodways since it is still honoring ancestors with their favorite foods. I am personally interested to see if these foods will change as the favorite dishes of the young become pizza, hamburgers, and Sabritas." Aside from her scholarly interest, O'Connor is one of many Anglo-Americans who are fully adopting a personal observance of Day of the Dead. "In the past I'd always just set up a generic ofrenda, but now it is dedicated to my cat, who died in October last year. I buy some sugar skulls and put a piece of her favorite blanket up with her ashes and a candle," she says. "I feel Halloween in the U.S. has gotten away from the spooky and has dived headfirst into commercialism. I mean, the kids don't even say 'trick or treat' any more, and I've been asked to be cautious about how scary my decorations are for the 'trick-or-treaters' in the neighborhood. I feel Día de los Muertos still embraces some of the magic I loved as a kid, although I realize it is changing with increased globalization as well."
Mexic-Arte Museum Education Program Manager Claudia Zapata is a native Austinite with a master's degree in art history from UT-Austin. "I have a specific memory of dressing up as a devil and tasting Mexican hot chocolate for the first time at a Mexic-Arte Museum event," she recalls. "As a third-generation Mexican-American, I celebrate Día de los Muertos out of a subjective necessity to preserve the cultural traditions of my ancestors. My family primarily attends community-sponsored cultural events related to Day of the Dead in San Antonio or Austin." As she gears up for the flurry of activities for the annual Viva la Vida Fest, Zapata continues to be intrigued by the connection to the pre-Columbian world throughout the Day of the Dead celebrations, such as the linguistic appropriations from the Nahuatl language, and the direct and indirect similarities between the ways ancient Mesoamerican cultures and modern society venerate ancestors. "I think the proximity to the Halloween celebrations allow a readily easy pairing of the two holidays. The ornate elements of the holidays and practices, and the influx of a Latino population in the United States, create a perfect storm for Day of the Dead celebrations to become a norm in American festivities," she states. Although her family does not prepare specific Day of the Dead-related food, there are always sugar skulls in the kitchen during October. "Finding sugar skulls among sliced bread and cereal in my families' kitchens has become an enjoyed idiosyncratic behavior," she says.
J.P. Hayes, owner of award-winning Sgt. Pepper's hot sauce company, has been hosting Day of the Dead parties at his home since 2000, "as an extension of Halloween, I guess. The skulls and skeletons decor do cross over well, and it seemed a waste to decorate the whole house for just one day of celebration," he laughs. "Plus, I like the atmosphere with candles and such." In fact, the brightly colored walls inside his home are inspired by Mexican folk art and are decorated with Day of the Dead artifacts throughout. Since Hayes is an avid cook, it didn't take long for his celebration to become all about the food. "I really got into Mexican cooking, so Day of the Dead became my excuse for throwing a Mexican-themed party. I cook everything from scratch – at least two kinds of tamales, and mole, of course." He developed his mole recipe – adapted from various recipes from his personal cookbook library – for a cooking class he taught at Central Market. "But I also cook from Susana Trilling's book and always look to Diana Kennedy for the most authentic recipes." His eager guests are in charge of the beans, rice, tortillas, and beverages.
Día de los Muertos is a celebration near and dear to Marisela Godinez's heart. The chef from El Mesón fondly remembers how her mother celebrated this holiday while she was growing up in Naucalpan, just outside Mexico City. "Mom became an orphan at the age of 6," she recalls, "so she always set up an altar in honor of her parents. Preparations began by taking my sisters and me to the market to buy the flowers, pan de muerto, sugar skulls, candles, and the ingredients for her mole. ... I recall the smells of the market vividly: incense, marigolds, and dried chiles. It's a season that always brings me great memories," she confides. "My mother's altar was very simple, just candles, a glass of water, a rosary, and lots of marigolds; their smell impregnated the house. She would set cocoles [anise-flavored pastries] for my grandpa, and for her mother she always made calabaza en tacha [pumpkin cooked in piloncillo syrup] and dulce de camote [candied sweet potato]." Godinez sets altars every year, passing the tradition down to her own children, only now her altar is dedicated to her recently deceased mother. Two things are constant on her simple altar: plenty of marigolds and coxcombs and pan de muerto from Panadería Chuy ("It's the tastiest and the prettiest," she says). After seeing my presentation at Mexic-Arte last year, she wanted to set up a more elaborate Oaxaca-style ofrenda this year. "I think this is one of the reasons non-Mexicans have embraced this celebration," she says. "Even though death is a sober, serious matter, Días de los Muertos is a beautiful, colorful, artistic celebration that is quite attractive." Her altar will be on display at the restaurant, and she'll be featuring her moles (including her mother's prized mole rojo), as well as the candied pumpkin and sweet potato dishes that remind her of her mom. Make sure to stop by for a taste of these Day of the Dead dishes, and soak up some tradition.
Resources for Day of the Dead
Pan de muerto: The traditional "bread of the dead" can be found at Mi Victoria Bakery (5245 Burnet Rd., 458-1898), La Mexicana Bakery (1924 S. First, 443-6369), Panadería Chuy (8716 Research, 374-9910), and at both Fiesta and Central Market locations.
Calaveritas: Classic sugar skulls are available at La Mexicana, Mi Victoria, Panadería Chuy, Fiesta, Mexic-Arte Museum (419 Congress, 480-9373), and Tesoros Trading Company (1500 S. Congress, 447-7500).
Marigolds and coxcombs: No altar would be complete without them. Fresh ones from the Arnosky family farm are available at Central Market. Whole Foods Market has marigolds but not coxcombs. The Flower Bucket (3100 N. Lamar, 453-6692) should have both.
Kate Heyhoe's Dreams of the Dead skulls: Available at Mexic-Arte, Authenticity Gallery (910 Congress, 478-2787), and Yard Dog Gallery (1510 S. Congress, 912-1613).