An Invitation

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A Traditional Día de los Muertos


"You don't know what Día de los Muertos really is until you witness it in Mexico," my friend Nelly said.  "Day of the Dead is a celebration of life, not a mourning of death," she added.

Following Nelly's advice, I traveled to Mexico to celebrate Day of the Dead.  Nelly, Joan, my anthropologist friend, and Fred, my spouse, accompanied me.  We arrived at a small Indian village outside Mexico City on the afternoon of November 2. As we walked through the village we saw colorful skeletons, sugar skulls, and ofrendas (offerings to the dead).

I was ready to meet  the Lady of the Dead. 

  "Day of the Dead relates to the ancient Mesoamerican celebration of the goddess Mictecacihuatl Aztec queen of the underworld," Joan explained in her anthropological tone. "The Aztecs celebrated the Lady of the Dead festival during summer and dedicated it to the children and the dead," she continued. "After the Spanish colonization, Catholic clergy moved the tradition from summer to fall to coincide with All Saints Day Eve (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2)." 


A parade of smiling indigenous children dressed in black and crowned with bright orange marigold flowers interrupted Joan's lecture.  The children's joy was infectious.  In a reversed Pied Piper mode, we followed the children.  The parade ended when the sun went down, and Nelly gave each of us a cirio (candle). 

"You are sending light to the dead so they can find their way home," Nelly explained.  We lit the cirios and slowly walked along the dirt-paved streets. A strong smell of maravillas (marigold flowers) permeated the early evening.  Nelly reminded us that maravilla (cempasuchil) is the preferred flower for Día de los Muertos. 

As we continued our peregrination,, the maravilla scent receded, giving way to another...

"What is this smell? " I asked.

"Burned copal," Nelly said. "The indigenous people believe that burning copal attracts the souls of the departed. They use copal incense to invited their dead into their homes."

We stopped at a small house, the opened door inviting.  Nelly motioned us to enter. "Make sure you taste pan de muerto (special bread of the dead in the shape of a person)," she said.

When we entered, I was shocked to see a dressed figure on a table at the center of the living room. 

"The family lost their grandfather this year," Nelly said. "The custom is to place the deceased's favorite clothes on a table representing the person," she explained.

I got closer to the dressed silhouette. Something or someone seemed to inhabit the straw sombrero, brown jacket, white shirt, and jeans. Suddenly, a presence startled me and forced me to turn around.

"Please take a piece of pan de muerto," a middle aged woman said.

I relaxed and accepted the ofrenda.  Even now, I still remember how the sweetness of the pan's anise danced in my mouth after eating pan de muerto.  Afterwards, I walked towards the family altar. The altar was colorfully decorated with skulls, candles, flowers, food, bottles of water, images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and family photos. My eyes focused on a picture: A middle aged man wearing a straw sombrero looked at me with smiling eyes. At that moment, a young girl of about 12 years old offered me a beverage.

"Is this your abuelo," I asked her after I accepted the drink

"Sí," she responded.  "And this was Abuelo's favorite drink."

I toasted to the deceased and tasted the drink. To my surprise, it tasted like Dos Equis. "Is this ...?

"Yes," Nelly answered before I finished asking the question. "Some families serve alcoholic beverages during Día de los Muertos, particularly if their departed enjoyed them," she said. 

We paid our respects and continued our visitation. The outside temperature was pleasant---not too hot, not too cold.   For a moment, I thought I had made a mistake carrying a rebozo (shawl).  But, all of a sudden, the temperature changed.  A cold air made me shiver. I reached for my rebozo

"The indigenous people say that when you feel a cold breeze a spirit is near you," Joan said as she helped me wrap the rebozo around my shoulders. 

My soul became heavy. At that instance, I remembered my family's celebration of Día de los Muertos in Puerto Rico.  Every November 2 my grandmother Antonia and I visited our hometown cemetery.  Abuela liked to visit the cemetery during the middle of the afternoon. As a child I never understood why she insisted in walking under to hot Caribbean sun.  Every time I complained about the heat, she said that we were supposed to endure pain during a peregrination. In addition to pain, we carried candles, flowers, water, and....a broom. The first time I saw Abuela carrying a broom to the cemetery, I asked her if she was a witch. 

"I'll show you, " was her response. 

After pulling out weeds from the family graves, Abuela used the broom to sweep the area.  Once Abuela had cleaned the graves, she prayed to the Virgin. "La Virgen lo puede todo (The Virgin can do everything) was her mantra. 

Many Days of the Dead have passed since I celebrated the tradition in the Mexican village.  Many more have gone by since I accompanied Abuela to our hometown cemetery.  Today I celebrate Day of the Dead in a feminist way:

I prepare an altar with several goddesses.  Mictecacihuatl, the Mexican Lady of the Dead occupies the altar's center. To her left stands La Virgen de Guadalupe.  Kali, the Hindu goddess of creation and destruction, is at the right of Mictecacihuatl.  Green Tara, the Bodhisattva goddess of liberation, grounds the altar.  Cirios surround the goddesses. Family photos complete the decoration. A small broom lays in front of a picture. Although my beloved Abuela appears solemn in her picture, she looks at me with smiling eyes.

I don't need to burn copal to invite Abuela into my home.

I know that she is with me.  Always.



Photos by Frederick M. Jacobsen


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As a psychologist, healer, and writer Lillian Comas is interested in spirituality, feminism, and multiculturalism.


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