Families remember loved ones during Day of the Dead

Elizabeth Putnam

An “ofrenda,” or altar, lay covered with food, flowers, candles, photos and candy skulls in the La Raza office Thursday to invoke the memories of loved ones who have died.

During the Day of the Dead, a Mexican celebration that takes place Nov. 1-2, many believe the spirits of deceased family members return to receive the gifts.

“It’s not a celebration of death because death is just a beginning. It’s a celebration of life,” said Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, a La Raza member. “Everything is a cycle, and we embrace it and celebrate life.”

Juanita Garciagodoy, a Macalester College professor and author of the book “Digging the Days of the Dead,” said the celebration is not a worship of the dead.

“You have to think of it as a family reunion, and the guests of honor are the dead,” said Garciagodoy.

Practiced for more than 3,000 years, the Day of the Dead began as a ritual celebrated by Mexico’s indigenous people.

When Spanish conquistadors landed in Mexico more than 500 years ago, they thought the ritual mocked the dead.

Over time, the rituals turned into a celebration to honor the dead and have evolved to incorporate elements of All Saints Day. Today, the Day of the Dead is recognized in Mexico and certain parts of the United States and Central America.

“Practically every civilization has believed in feeding the dead or giving them presents,” Garciagodoy said. “During Halloween, children dress up as the dead and request treats or threaten tricks. These treats are symbolic things that would be given to the dead. The Day of the Dead is very similar in that respect.”

But the Day of the Dead in Mexico is not celebrated like the American Halloween, said Guillermo Rojas, professor of Chicano studies.

“In cosmopolitan and modern communities where people are familiar with American movies depicting Halloween, the youngster may dress more in style with American costumes,” said Rojas.

La Raza uses the celebration to help educate Spanish classes at the University, said La Raza member Carolina Korth.

“We serve Bread of the Dead and Champurrado, a hot chocolate drink, to Spanish classes while we show a film about the celebration,” said Korth.

Garciagodoy said the tone of the celebration depends on when the dead died. There is a sense of mourning if there was a recent death.

“If it is commemorating those who died some time ago, it’s much more lighthearted. People will be telling stories and recalling memories,” Garciagodoy said. “It feels a lot like Thanksgiving in that sense. It’s a family reunion, but it’s not a huge party.”

“The tone is not a celebratory one with hoopla and gaiety; it is serious with prayer and song, with meditation and with social bonding with the living in commemoration of the departed,” Rojas said.

In some larger communities such as Mexico City, people celebrate the day with a carnival-like atmosphere and plays, Garciagodoy said.

Some city hall fronts, museums and shop windows also display the ofrendas. Some even have a political feel, said Garciagodoy.

“It provides an opportunity to remember those who have come before us, such as the individuals who died on Sept. 11 in New York, to remember that the fate of the departed awaits us and we too can contemplate our own finalities,” Rojas said.