El Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday rooted in ancient indigenous ritual and steeped in Catholic custom. Mexicans celebrate the passing of loved ones on Novemeber 1, honoring the departed souls with elaborate altars containing offerings of food, calaveras, flowers, and other items.
In recent years, the holiday has become more widely-recognized in the United States, a change from when my arrived in the United States in the 1960s. My mother was of a generation whose social and economic survival depended on keen assimilation skills, so we never celebrated the Day of the Dead. Erecting an altar in our little apartment in the Boulevard Oaks section of Houston was not going to happen. It was only years later, long after I’d moved to D.C. to finish high school that my mother (still in Houston) became an artist of Aztec-inspired paintings and ethereal Day of the Dead altars. It was as though by the time she reached middle-age, the world had changed enough.
Today, assimilation is no longer necessary for survival, at least not in the way it was when my mother was a young woman. The opposite seems true. We hunger for cultural awareness. We are proud of our heritage and intent on celebrating in a way our parents sometimes could not.
And that’s exactly what I did this Día de los Muertos. My family and I got down and dirty with food coloring and sugar skulls. It was complicated slightly by hands still too little to decorate with finesse and by the diversity of abuelitos on the altar.(Would the spirit of my husband’s grandfather, a Russian immigrant, be confused by the offering of canela and Mexican candies?)
Together, my husband and I remembered sets of grandparents and a great-grandmother. We told stories and vowed to repeat them next year when the kids are older and no longer obsessed with eating the colored frosting on the sugar skulls.
There was satisfaction in this. In remembering our grandparents. In the start of a new family tradition. And in the knowledge that we can go through life just as we are.