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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Day of the Dead

Air Date: Week of

Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa talks about celebrating the Mexican festival the Day of the Dead, and how she recreated this celebration in New York City. Storytellers Elida Guardia Bonet and Antonio Sacre discuss their own experiences with the holiday.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. This week, we're celebrating the holiday season in cooperation with Latino USA, with storytellers Antonio Sacre, and Elida Guardia Bonet, and Latino USA host, Maria Hinojosa. Maria, you're up next, with a tale about the Mexican celebration called the Day of the Dead and how you brought it to New York City. I have to say, the Day of the Dead sounds pretty gruesome to me. How does that become a celebration?

HINOJOSA: Well, you know what, I think that part of what we have to realize in terms of tradition and celebration is that things change and different moments in history and different generations take rituals and make them their own. So I think how the Day of the Dead ended up becoming a celebration, for me in a very particular sense, is one part of the story. I think the broader part of the story is, how is it that Mexicans choose a day, el Dia de los Muertos, to, in fact, celebrate life, the life of those who have passed onto the other side? And that's what it is, it's a celebration, not of their death, it's a celebration of their life. It's the celebration of recognizing that they are, on this particular day--actually three days, October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd--that this is the day in which the spirits of the past are in the closest proximity to the living.

CURWOOD: That sounds fascinating. So Maria, I'm ready. Let's hear about the Day of the Dead.

HINOJOSA: Well, my story is not a written story, it's just a story that I'm going to share with you about my experience of el Dia de los Muertos. And, interestingly enough, even though I am Mexican, I didn't spend el Dia de los Muertos, ever, in Mexico, because I was growing up in the United States. So my first actual celebration of el Dia de los Muertos happened in the late 1980s when I was living on Tijuana, Mexico, and working in San Diego and commuting back and forth every day, crossing the US-Mexico border. And at that point in my life bringing the two parts of myself the closest together, the U.S. side of myself and my Mexican self.

I was invited to go to a celebration of el Dia de los Muertos, and I had known about el Dia de los Muertos ever since I was a child, because we had little sugar candied skulls. We had them in our shelves, encased in glass, with our names on them. So I always knew that Mexicanos liked to have sugar coated skulls kind of hanging around in their bedrooms. I mean, I held onto these sugar coated skulls forever. They were just like the thing. And no one else in my neighborhood had one, so I was just so cool with my little sugar candied skulls.

But it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I actually went to participate in a celebration of el Dia de los Muertos. And what we did was we ended up going to the cemetery, which is where you, in fact- one of the central places where you celebrate el Dia de los Muertos. You go back to the cemetery where your family is buried; you clean off the plots; you make sure everything is clean and watered, that the grass is tended to. It's really--the cemeteries become filled with life. In places, in cemeteries that are usually empty, or almost empty, suddenly, on these days, they're like crowded with people. I mean, there are lines forming outside, there are people selling stuff outside, you can buy buckets filled with water to clean your tombstone, you can buy the flowers, you can buy any kind of food that you want. Because what you're doing is you're bringing to the cemetery all of the things that this person would have wanted in life, if they ate. One of the major pieces of food that you bring is mole, mole de pollo. It's just part of the tradition on the Day of the Dead, so you bring offerings of mole de pollo. If they like to drink Coca-Cola, you bring Coca-Cola. If they like cerveza, you bring the beer. There are some families that can afford to actually hire little mariachi bands or other kinds of musicians to come and play music.


One of the very important parts of the celebration is the lighting of the candles, because it's in this way that you are guiding the path for the spirits to be able to see where they're coming. That's what the role of the candles is, is for them to be able to see where they're going. You have to put water, because the dead are very thirsty. Where they are, it's not a place where they can get water, so you have to offer them water in big goblets. And you offer them cempazuchitl flowers, which are marigold, yellow-gold flowers, which are for the smell and also for the guiding of the spirits to come back onto this earth.

So, that part of the celebration was the first time that I saw that was in the late 1980s, in Tijuana, and I became extraordinarily captivated by this sense of life in the cemetery. And I did a documentary about it; I spent a lot of time thinking and writing and looking at el Dia de los Muertos. But the reality was that this was Tijuana and my muertos were buried in Mexico City, and I had been growing up in Chicago, so there never really was a place for me to go, there wasn't a cemetery for me to go to, to do this ritual.

So when I moved back to New York, from Tijuana, and I realized that the Mexican presence was growing in New York, I came up with an idea with a cultural worker that I was friends with, that we wanted to bring el Dia de los Muertos into New York City. So we thought a lot about doing public events: could we do it in Grand Central Station, could we do it at the Port Authority Bus Terminal? Someplace where the tradition would be seen, visible, witnessed by many, many, many people. Of course, they weren't going to let us light candles and put food out in Grand Central Station, so the next best thing was an art gallery. And we recreated, in an art gallery, essentially what you would have seen in a cemetery. We had flowers, marigold flowers. We created a huge altar. Because many people, if they can't get to the cemetery, what they do is they build, essentially, altars in their homes. Which is what I started doing, and then wanted to make it public, so we built an altar, in a gallery, and it was filled. This tiny room in this gallery, we filled it all with dirt and sand and it really made you feel like you were--when you were walking onto this space, that you were walking onto the earth, that you had some kind of contact with nature.

And that's what you also felt at the altars: there were flowers and, again, many candles and incense. And every year since then, essentially, I've done some kind of event for el Dia de los Muertos. I ended up having huge parties at my home in which people who didn't know anything about el Dia de los Muertos would come every year and we would build a huge altar also with lots of dirt and sand, hello?, in my five floor walk-up apartment. But people loved this because it was, in fact, as if you were communing with nature but you were in an apartment. And people would bring photographs of their loved ones. And so it transformed itself from something that in Mexico is celebrated in the cemeteries, to something that is now celebrated in different forms. In my case, it was either in public events, like in galleries, or in museums where I ended up doing some altar work, or it was in my own apartment where I would be holding these festivities.

So it's interesting to see how a celebration that is centered around a place, a cemetery, suddenly you can take it, because of the circumstances of your life, and make it something different. And I know that now, for example, even in New York City, which has got a skyrocketing Mexican population, there are people who build altars in their apartments, in the basements of tenement buildings in the Bronx and in Queens and in Brooklyn, and these celebrations are alive.

But part of what my commitment, in terms of this particular celebration, is to bring it out into the public and so that everybody learns something as a result. What is it to, in fact, celebrate a day of the dead? And for those of us who have these kinds of traditions, to make them public and known, and part of the American cultural landscape which they are already part of.

CURWOOD: Hmm. This is amazing. Now, if I came to one of these newer celebrations, the New York version that you're doing in someone's home, what would I come away with, do you think?

HINOJOSA: Oh, I think that you'd come away with a sense of like, "Wow, that was important, to spend a day thinking about my loved ones." You know, your loved ones, who maybe you think about oftentimes throughout the year, maybe think about them every day. But in this particular circumstance you realize that this is a day which is dedicated to them, to doing things for them, to thinking about them, to talking to them, talking about them, and feeling rejuvenated or more committed to your life as a result of having given this time for your ancestors, for the people who open the path for you.


BONET: Well, in Panama we don't celebrate el Dia de los Muertos that way. It's very, it's more religious, in a way, in the sense that, you know, like traditional. No radios are on, in the whole country. There's no TV. There's no type of TV going on, even if you wanted to turn on the TV. There's no festivities. There's no parties. I have a sister-in-law who was born on that day and she has never been able to celebrate her birthday on that day, because there's no parties allowed. And it's just part of the tradition. Now, my father tells me that that comes more from the Spanish tradition, that it was the seriousness about death.

And to me, it was so liberating, when I moved to Texas, to see the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebration. Because I feel that it is like Maria says, a celebration for life; you're celebrating the afterlife but you're also celebrating the life that you shared with those people here, on earth. So I have really enjoyed, now, seeing a whole new kind of celebration for el Dia de los Muertos. And now what I do is, in my own personal family my mother's the one who has passed away, and she used to love to eat Oreos, and she used to open the Oreo and put slices of bananas in between and eat them like a sandwich. I guess she mixed two cultures, the American and the bananas from our backyard. And now, I do that, as kind of a remembering of her.

CURWOOD: Antonio?

SACRE: It's just an incredible example of honoring these people. I think about that. One Mexican teenager told me that when they go to the cemetery, they can actually speak with their dead. At first, it freaked me out, but then I thought about that. It's like, you listen, and what would your grandmother say at this moment? And he said, "I asked my grandmother what she thought about my girlfriend and even though she's been dead, she told me that she was pretty great." This kind of back and forth. And to hear that was kind of amazing. It was an incredible example for me, the last five years, just being a part of the celebration as well, and seeing it, and having these kids tell me about what they do at home, and the altars they build. I got my first candy skull this past year, Maria, actually. Somebody gave me one. It's so sort of scary and beautiful and what do I do? I don't eat it, right? No, don't eat it, just leave it there. Okay. Thanks. It's kind of amazing.

But with my father, the Cubans don't really have a day of the dead, either. But there's a real connection to the cemetery. An example that I always had for my father was, every time we'd go to Miami, to visit my grandmother who was living there, in Little Havana, we would go to the cemetery and he would clear off his father's grave. His father came from Cuba and then died a year after being here. And so my father would always go to the cemetery, clean off the grave, he'd put flowers there. He'd spent some time there. And that was an example I had that was not tied to a specific tradition but that connects with the Day of the Dead. Because none of my...my mom's side of the family is Irish-American. I've never been to the cemetery of any of our relatives in Boston. I guess you have the big funeral, the big wake, and then, that's it.




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