Opinion: Why the Day of the Dead matters so much to Mexicans

The Day of the Dead never meant very much to me as a child.

For a long time, it felt like a tradition that I was slowly outgrowing. As a young girl being raised in Mexico, the Day of the Dead was only about setting up an altar to a person my mother chose for me, like Gandhi or Francis of Assisi because she thought they were good role models; and as I got older I felt like it was just an effort to hold onto my childhood.

Then my grandmother, my abuelita, passed away. I was 17 years old.

That November was the first time I had ever dedicated an altar to a person that I knew, and we set out to build the best altar we ever had.

The Mexican celebration of “Dia de Muertos” – whose roots date back hundreds of years to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess called Mictecacihuatl – is from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

Tradition has it that it’s the one time of the year in which the dead can return to our world, drink and eat and enjoy the people they left behind. Many Mexicans set up altars in their homes with offerings to deceased family members; others head to loved ones’ graves in the cemetery. Some do both.

The celebration centers on these altars, and when my grandmother passed away my family dedicated several days to building it.

We were armed with mounds of bright-colored papel picado, different sized cardboard boxes and enough cempazúchitl, or “the flowers of the dead” as the Mexican marigold is also known, to carpet the living room.

We set the cardboard boxes up next to a wall, one on top of the other, with the largest box at the bottom and the smallest on top. We laid down the intricately cut-out papel picado on each level. Then, we took the orange cempazúchitls and put them all around the altar, some in small vases.

Since the Day of the Dead is said to be the one day in which the dead are able to visit the mortal world, it’s important to cover the altar with that person’s favorite foods so that they can enjoy them again.

My abuelita loved nanches – small, pungent, yellow fruits that are often preserved in alcohol. She ate them regularly and, on occasion, she would even drink the liquor they came in, which made her laugh at the dirty jokes that my uncles would tell after dinner, which she ordinarily disparaged.

Those are the things I remembered as I set up her altar that year – all of her quirks, her laugh and her warmth.

We put the rest of the “ofrendas,” or offerings, next to the nanches. We placed a large glass of water used to “quench the thirst of the dead” and a big piece of sweet “pan de muerto,” or “bread of the dead.”

Small sugar skulls that have colorful designs on them lined the bottom of the altar, which was illuminated by small, white candles.

When we finished, my mom said “this is the last thing we need,” and placed a photo of my grandmother at the top.

I stared at the picture. I missed her so much.

My mom brought out some pan de muerto for me and my brother, along with some hot chocolate. The sugar stuck to my lip and the bread was hard to swallow because I was choking back tears.

It was the first time I had ever really allowed myself to mourn my abuelita. When she died, all I remember is watching the fluorescent lights flicker in the hospital waiting room and fidgeting around in my seat, all in an effort not to cry.

That Day of the Dead I learned that there is sadness within the sugar skulls and the sweet bread.

“I miss her,” is all I could think. I couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t be there on my wedding day, and I wouldn’t get to dance with her the way I did at my quinceañera.

But the smell of the flowers mixed with the purples and pinks of the papel picado made it hard not to feel festive, too.

My abuelita had always told me that she didn’t want anyone to cry at her funeral, because her death meant that she was finally close to God and that was something to be celebrated, but I hadn’t understood how to do that.

This is what Dia de Muertos teaches us Mexicans; it’s about remembering the dead and doing so with joy.

My grandmother was the most wonderfully kind and talented woman I have ever known, and I got to celebrate her life with millions of others across the country. It felt like I was throwing her a party that spread from coast to coast – and that’s the celebration that her life deserved.

It’s a stark contrast to Day of the Dead celebrations, if they can be called that, in my current home of New York City. Even though there are events throughout the city that are meant to highlight the traditions of the holiday, it just isn’t the same.

Walking into a CVS pharmacy and seeing a sign reading “Happy Day of the Dead” in blow-up glittery letters next to Halloween candy and Thanksgiving items is kind of surreal.

Small, plastic skeletons dressed in mariachi hats and Day of the Dead stickers bearing messages like “Buenas noches” and “Happy Halloween” on them incorporate the iconography, but seem to miss the point of the holiday altogether.

It’s hard to imagine a child learning to grieve the loss of a loved one with the help of plastic trinkets and party decorations.

Monica Serrano is a College Associate at Fox News Latino.

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