Remembering Loved Ones, Cultural Traditions, and the Power of Passing on Stories
When our loved ones have passed away, sometimes it’s hard to think of them. That sudden pang of grief that sinks like a boulder in your stomach is enough to deter you from dwelling on the past too often. I was recently going through some of my art lesson plans and came across some papers my grandparents had given me from when they were docents at the art museum, and it was shocking how quickly the tears started to swell from just one memento. I find myself pushing those memories aside at times to keep my composure but also remind myself that it is, indeed, important to remember them. Keeping loved ones’ stories alive is key to not only cherishing them for ourselves, but also for passing on those legacies to younger generations.
When I was a little girl, my maternal grandparents used to take me to plays. Dressing up and going to elegant theaters was a delight, as was seeing the joy those plays brought to my Nana. From a young age, my Grandpa instilled in me the importance of the arts and culture, and going to plays was just one way we celebrated that. I attribute my becoming an art teacher and artist to the experiences like these that I had growing up. To honor my grandparents’ memory, my mom treated me and my daughters to a beautiful play at the local theater. I wore a pair of my Nana’s earrings so that, in a way, she would be there too. The magic and excitement that my daughters experienced took me right back to those cherished moments, and I was so touched that the legacy of my grandparents was being passed on to the next generation. Acts like these align with the sentiment behind the holiday, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Dia de los Muertos is a cultural holiday that honors loved ones who have passed away by creating decorative ofrendas, or altars, filled with objects, food, and drink that their ancestors enjoyed in life.
Annually, in many countries, November 1st and 2nd are days where it is believed that the spirits of loved ones are allowed to cross to the living world and join their loved ones in celebration. You’ve undoubtedly seen or heard of Disney’s Coco, from which the popular song “Remember Me” comes. Movies and books like these bring to mind how precious and delicate life can be and how love and family are central in our lives. This holiday of remembrance is dedicated to honoring loved ones and passing on their stories to younger generations.
Dia de los Muertos has roots in Mesoamerican rituals, Catholic religion, and Spanish culture. Beginning nearly 3,000 years ago with the Aztecs, this was once a ritual honoring the dead. History.com editors write, “Upon dying, a person was believed to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Only after getting through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, could the person’s soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place. In Nahua rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members provided food, water, and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey. This inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead practice in which people leave food or other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes.” (https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/day-of-the-dead) Later, this ritual would be combined with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, Catholic holidays brought with the influence of Spanish conquistadors.
The most iconic image of Dia de los Muertos would be the calavera, or sugar skull.
This originates from the character known as “La Catrina,” created in 1910 by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. You can also find small decorative candy sugar skulls, calaveras de azucar, often on memorial altars. Countries like Mexico hold parades and festivals with music and brightly colored decorations, where you can spot many people with their faces painted like calaveras.
Families and communities come together to decorate grave sites, home altars, and public altars with marigold petals and bright-colored papel picado. This intricate banner that means “pierced paper” is a staple in any Dia de los Muertos celebration. The marigold petals are often spread on the ground in a path that is said to guide the spirits home, and candles are lit on the ofrenda next to photos of those loved ones who are no longer with us. Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a traditional sweetened bun that is left out with beloved items such as toys, favorite foods, and mementos from the ancestors’ lives.
I teach art at a dual language elementary school, and every year the Spanish teachers and I put together an ofrenda to honor the loved ones in our community who are no longer with us.
Each student makes a part of the ofrenda and can bring in a photo of their loved ones to add to it. We add all of the traditional elements of the celebration together on the stage in our school, and open the curtains on November 2nd. During lunch students listen to music from Coco while viewing the sentimental and beautiful display they all took part in.
My favorite story to share with my children and students is the picture book The Day of the Dead / El Día de los Muertos: A Bilingual Celebration by Bob Barner.
Written as a simple rhyming poem, this bilingual book is read in both English and Spanish. The bold illustrations show two children who are preparing for Day of the Dead before going out to celebrate, starting with preparing food and treats. They spread marigold petals and light candles before the dancing and singing begins, marking the night when their ancestors are remembered.
Ecuador, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Bolivia, the Philippines, Haiti, Brazil, Spain, and Mexico are among many countries that celebrate Dia de los Muertos, and even countries like Ireland and Italy celebrate similar holidays. Due to its connections to All Souls Day and its Catholic roots, many countries call this day different names but commemorate it in similar ways. Communities in the United States, Czech Republic, Australia, Fiji, Indonesia, and New Zealand partake in festivities to honor ancestors as well.
If you want to take your children on a trip around the world to share a glimpse of different people and cultures, consider reading I Love You Across the World, written by Kim Bushman Aguilar and illustrated by me, Jenni Feidler-Aguilar.
Each page of this book focuses on a child from the featured country in an authentic setting, accompanied by the words “I love you” translated into the child’s home language. The page featuring Mexico shows a child in front of an ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos.
We know that the Day of the Dead is celebrated in many places and in many ways, but is it okay for me to celebrate it if I don’t belong to those cultures? There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, which has been a hot topic in the last several years. Sometimes, it’s hard to know whether or not it’s acceptable to wear certain items or participate in cultural activities, so let’s dig a little deeper.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, cultural appropriation is the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture. An example would be painting your face with sugar skull makeup for Halloween without understanding the culture and history of Dia de los Muertos, which is completely separate from Halloween, or making the calavera face paint look bloody and scary like a Halloween mask. Cultural appropriation could also include copying sacred symbols and selling products with them or copying sacred practices while not belonging to that group. Sometimes, this is done unintentionally or without intent to offend, but it is a slippery slope when it comes to the feelings of the cultural group from which those practices originate. Taking the celebration of Dia de los Muertos out of context and redefining it within another culture could be offensive to the original cultural groups.
Because we have many minority groups in the United States that practice Dia de los Muertos, this is a common holiday to participate in. So, how can I celebrate with appreciation and not appropriation? You can certainly find ways to honor this day of remembrance without being a part of that cultural group, as anyone from any group can honor their ancestors in various ways. This could include putting out photos of loved ones who have passed on, which is a common practice of Dia de los Muertos. Attending local festivals and museum exhibitions are great ways to be exposed to the culture and learn first-hand about the traditions from those particular cultural groups. Wearing traditional garments and accessories, painting your face, and putting up ofrendas could be done by people outside that cultural group if done with good intentions, respect, and a cultural understanding of exactly what they are celebrating. This could also be done in collaboration with friends or family who come from that culture. While opinions from different cultural groups may vary, it is important to always be respectful of the traditions of others.
One more book that shows the traditions of this holiday is Dia de Los Muertos, written by Roseanne Greenfield Thong and illustrated by Carles Ballesteros.
This vibrant and whimsical version takes us on a journey through all the traditions from beginning to end. The writing is in English but is laced with words in Spanish to bring authenticity to the descriptions, and the characters in the illustrations show us the traditions throughout the story. We follow them as they gather candles, food, and materials to set up an ofrenda at the gravesites, then continue to the festive celebration where they dress up and paint their faces like calaveras. This book is a great introduction to all the traditions of Dia de los Muertos.
How can we honor and remember our loved ones who are no longer with us? My paternal grandmother, Nanny, passed away this year. The sting of that loss is still fresh, but it brings a smile to my face to think of ways to honor her as I immediately think of playing Bingo, her favorite game. Remembering our ancestors can be an act of joy, not always weighted by grief. Start simple by sharing stories of memories of them. Carry on a tradition they valued, or take out objects that belonged to them. Show pictures of them and talk about what they were like in life. Light a candle in their honor or do an activity they enjoyed, like listening to their favorite song or going to their favorite place. Think about fun and creative ways to celebrate their lives and all they meant when they were here with us. After all, life is precious, as are our family members.