In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of two worlds daily. The moment we left our casitato go to school, we entered an American world where English dominated and we loved burgers and fries (when we could get them); but at home we spoke Spanish too, and waited eagerly for our Grandma’sfresh-made salsa with warm tortillas and tamales. As the years went by and we became adults, some aspects of our Mexican heritage were unfortunately watered down or lost in translation. But thankfully our favorite family foods were not! Family recipes, particularly Grandma’s, have been an enduring link between the generations of our family.
Now, as a mother, it’s important to me to keep Mexican traditions and foods alive for my children. And at this time of year that means embracing Halloween on Oct. 31 and Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on Nov. 2. I’ve been surprised to find how many people confuse the two and even think of Día de Los Muertos as just “Mexican Halloween.” The holidays have very different origins and traditions, and I think that is all the more reason to celebrate both. The rituals, customs and even the foods behind Día de Los Muertos offer us a comforting, positive way to cope with death and reaffirm life. And with the growing numbers of Mexican-Americans — immigrants as well as second and third generation — isn’t it time we made it an American holiday?
Aztec and Celtic holidays
Día de los Muertos originated more than 3,000 years ago with the Aztecs, who believed the souls of loved ones journeyed back from the spiritual realm to pay the living a visit. The Aztecs welcomed the departed for this annual celebration and offered comforting foods to the visitors to help sustain them on their journey back to their world. Halloween, on the other hand, began with the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain, a celebration of the end of the harvest season. The Celts believed that on Oct. 31, the deceased would come back to life to seek vengeance, cause sickness or damage crops. Bonfires and wearing frightening disguises to ward off the restless spirits became part of the tradition. Historians indicate that the Celts tried to placate the dead with offerings of food — the origin of modern “trick or treating.” Clearly the ancient Aztecs and Celts had very different ideas about why the dead had come back to visit!
Food is central to Día de los Muertos celebrations throughout Mexico, and one food you’ll always find is pan de muerto (bread of the dead). These small loaves are flavored with anise and orange zest or orange blossom. Bakeries often prepare pan de muerto days in advance in anticipation of families buying many loaves for their festivities. The traditional round loaf has strips of dough attached to the top in the shape of a skull and bones. Everyone enjoys pan de muerto at their table, but it is also left on grave sites and altars.
Families often create altars at home with pictures of the departed, candles, sugar skulls, papel picado (paper cuttings) and the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased. The food served on Día de los Muertos varies from family to family. Our altar is dedicated to my Grandma, and every year I look forward to filling it with the foods she loved and in turn taught me to love. I remember having champurrado, a thick Mexican hot chocolate enhanced with corn flour, on cold winter mornings in my grandma’s cozy cocina. She made the champurrado to help me warm up in the morning. I can still picture her pouring it back and forth between two cups until it was cool enough to drink. It filled my belly and sometimes it was all I needed for breakfast.
Foods to honor the departed on Día de los Muertos
Grandma also made red pork tamales with such love and care that I think it’s only fitting to serve them on this special occasion. When I make them now, I’m reminded of how many days went into tamale preparation when I was a kid. The first day, Grandma would make the savory pork filling, and the next day it was the smoky red chile sauce. I always knew the final day was close when I saw corn husks soaking in the sink and silk threads all over the counters. My job was to remove the silk threads from the soaked husks, and it made me feel important to have a part in this cooking ritual. Grandma kneaded all the masa dough by hand. Carefully, she’d spread a thin layer of masa on each corn husk and fill it with just the right amount of pork and red chile sauce. This is one of my favorite memories of her.
We’ll enjoy Halloween this year as we always do with costumes, candy and parties, but my family also looks forward to celebrating Día de los Muertos on Nov. 2. Our table will be set with pan de muerto, champurrado, and of course tamales. The beauty of Día de los Muertos is that it gives us one day each year to recover something precious which we’ve lost. When we come together as a family and community to honor our departed, it can be an emotionally gratifying experience for everyone, particularly our children, whose sole connection to the departed may be through the holiday.
Día de los Muertos is not just for Mexico anymore. With the growing Mexican-American population as well as other Hispanic descendants who celebrate the holiday, this is the perfect time for America to adopt the Aztec tradition. This year, after the light in the jack o’ lantern has faded, consider dedicating Nov. 2 to loved ones who have passed on. You can honor them with a feast of their favorite foods, listen to the music they enjoyed, and take time to share your memories and stories with other family members. Join us in the celebration of Día de los Muertos.
Photo: Veronica Gonzalez-Smith. Credit: Jeanine Thurston