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

Day of the Dead

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa tells how she brought this Mexican celebration to NYC.



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?

Maria Hinojosa

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 U.S.-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.


CURWOOD: Time now for another holiday story from Mexico and I'll share this one with everybody. It's called The Legend of the Poinsettia.

Pepita was a little girl who lived in the small village of San Pancho, Mexico, hundreds of years ago. Pepita's parents were farmers and they were very poor, and as Christmas approached, Pepita's mother and father became sick. She had to help care for her little brother and sister. There was much work to be done, and young Pepita did her best to cook and clean and help with the burro in the fields. All the other people of the village were busy decorating the church and making special gifts to give to the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. Everyone was planning to take part in the Christmas Eve procession, singing and carrying candles.

Then, Padre Gonzales would place the figure of the baby Jesus in the manger, and the villagers would place their special gifts around the manger. Pepita had tried to weave a colorful blanket for the baby, but she was too little and the yarns became tangled. She tried to sew little leather boots for her gift, but the leather was too tough and she was not strong enough to push the needle through. She tried to think of something very special that her family could give to the baby Jesus, but, with her parents sick and her younger brother and sister too small to help, she could think of nothing. And soon, it was Christmas Eve.

The villagers lit the candles and began singing, as they walked through San Pancho, carrying their gifts to place at the manger. Pepita hid in the darkness, watching with tears in her eyes as the procession went to the church. Suddenly, an old man stepped from the shadows nearby: "Little girl, are you Pepita?" he said.

"Si," answered Pepita, wondering who he could be.

"I have a message for you," he said. "Your mama and papa are going to get well soon. Do not worry. Go to the church and celebrate Christmas with the other villagers. Your brother and sister are waiting for you."

"I can't," Pepita told him. "I don't have a gift to put in the manger. I tried and I tried to make something, but I couldn't finish it."

"Ah, Pepita, whatever you give the baby Jesus will love, because it comes from you."

"But, but, what can I give?" And Pepita began looking around.

She saw a big patch of green weeds nearby. Pepita rushed over and picked a huge armful. Then she turned to the old man, but he was gone. Pepita walked into the church. All the candles were blazing. The children were singing as she came down the aisle with her bundle of green weeds. "What is Pepita carrying?" the villagers whispered. "She's bringing weeds into the church." Pepita placed the green weeds all around the manger, and she bowed her head and prayed.

A hush fell over the church. Then voices whispered, "Look, look, look at the weeds!" Pepita opened her eyes. Each weed was topped with a flaming red star, and when everyone went outside, after the Mass, all the bunches of tall green weeds throughout the town were covered with red. Pepita's simple gift had become beautiful. And since then, every December, the red stars shine on the top of the green branches in Mexico.

Of course, those green weeds are poinsettias. The plants are native to Mexico and Central America. The Aztec's revered them as a gift from the gods. Later, poinsettias became associated with Christmas, because they bloom at this time of year. In Mexico they're called Fire Flower, or Christmas Flower, or Flower of the Holy Night. They were first brought North by Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as the U.S. minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1830. He eventually became wealthy breeding these plants that now bear his name. And, by the way, contrary to popular myth, poinsettias aren't poisonous.

Elida, what does that story bring up for you?

BONET: I tell that story, and I think it's a beautiful legend. I grew up with poinsettias always at Christmas time. I have one of my aunt's, who used to grow them in her backyard, and she always gave them to us for Christmastime. And I didn't know the story growing up, so it was real interesting, when I heard the story, to relate it to my growing up with the poinsettias. But we never called them poinsettias, we always called them la flor de Navidad, or la flor de la Noche Buena.

CURWOOD: The Flower of the Holy Night.

BONET: Mm-hm.


HINOJOSA: Yeah. I just, in listening to that story I remember my mom, when we would go to Mexico, over the holidays, and she would say, "Vamos a comprar las nochebuenas; tenemos que ir a buscar las nochebuenas." And there was always this thing about "las nochebuenas, las nochebuenas," and I would be like, "What?" Because "Noche Buena" means good night, or holy night, and I didn't quite understand it until then. Finally, I would see my mom going to the market and stocking up and making sure that the house was filled with nochebuenas. But I had never heard that story. So for me, it's a story that now you can be sure that I will be incorporating into my own family's traditions of our Domini-Mex kids who are experiencing Christmas. Who knows where they'll be, anywhere from New York to Bethlehem, Connecticut, to Mexico, to the Dominican Republic. But I guess this will be part of the stories that I'll just tell them now, because it's really wonderful.

CURWOOD: Antonio?

SACRE: Well, it just reminded me of how incredible a celebration the whole Christmas season is for Latinos. I mean, it starts with the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and then it goes all the way through January 6th, the Day of the Kings, the Three Kings, and the posadas all through. It's a two-month, huge party is what it is, and that's just--when I see the poinsettias I begin to remember this is the beginning of the party, and it won't end until, well for some people, all the way into February.

CURWOOD: You're listening to the Living on Earth holiday special Celebrations in Latino Landscapes, in cooperation with Latino USA. I'm Steve Curwood, and we'll be right back.


FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth