A Visit From the Dead, Multi-Cultural Style

3 Dec


Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. Partly for the costumes and the candy, for the creepiness and the revelry, for the possibility of being scared, for low-budget horror films and late night parties.  But I also love it for the idea that it is the night when the veil is thinnest between the worlds of the living and the dead. I love the idea of celebrating our dead loved ones, of believing that our dead do indeed come to visit us. Needless to say, I was a bit conflicted about missing Halloween, even though it meant I would finally get to experience Mexican Day(s) of the Dead.

When I was in college, I did a presentation once (in Spanish) on the Day of the Dead. It seemed even more fascinating and meaningful to me, in some ways, than Halloween.  I remember being a little confused, though, about what exactly went on, since all of my sources said something slightly different.

When I was in Chile, I was totally disappointed by the lack of celebration. I vowed that I would be in Mexico one day for Dia de los Muertos, since I knew people really celebrated there. Now, realizing that almost-forgotten goal, I see that not only do people celebrate differently depending on the country, but that here, even regionally people celebrate very differently. Thus I can only tell you about how people celebrate here in Juquila, and about the new traditions of our little mixed-culture family.

I’d read about people going and celebrating in the cemetery, and was hoping that would be the case here. It wasn’t. There is some visiting the cemetery involved, though. The day before the spirits come, you visit their grave to decorate, light candles, say prayers. It seems like a moment to invite them. .  If your dead are buried elsewhere and you can’t get to them, there’s another place in the cemetery for you to have your space with your dead. And the day after the visit, you do the same thing, but then it’s that gentle shove telling them ‘thanks for the visit; it’s time to go home.’

Here, October 31st is the day of angelitos (little angels), a day for the children and babies who have passed away. This is especially meaningful for me this year. I became a mother shortly after the (separate) deaths of two children whose parents are friends of mine. The deaths of those children (one a newborn and one a ten year old) were really painful for me, and so I can’t even imagine what a nightmare it was and is for their parents.

But somehow it is really comforting for me to imagine that their spirits are able to come and visit for a day. It’s comforting to leave them tiny little dishes of chicken soup with rice, tiny little cups of hot chocolate, little servings of arroz con leche (a sweet dish of rice cooked in milk). You leave candy and fruit and nuts and miniature servings of bread for them, too. Here’s a picture of our altar for the angelitos:


The idea of inviting their spirits, enticing them with treats, makes a lot of sense to me. The trail of flower petals that goes from just outside the door  and leads to the altar, to help them find their way, fills my heart with an immense sensation of love and a strange kind of joy. Because at the end of the day, death doesn’t make sense to me. The death of children, particularly, feels so horrendous and unjust and cruel. In my mind, in my heart, leaving them these sweet little offerings is a way to, if not make sense of it, at least pay some respect to their life and their death. It is a way to honor them and remember them that I feel like we don’t know how to do in the U.S. It seems to me that we shun death, we don’t want to talk about it. When a family member dies, you are allowed some days of utter sadness, and then you’re supposed to go on with life. Forget about it. This celebration and ritual, on the other hand, seems like a way to not forget the dead but to do something, and not just drown yourself in the sadness of it. It is a way to try to make peace with death, to mix those realms between the living and the dead, to feel like we are not alone, and to maybe give us less fear of death, with the thought that our loved ones won’t forget us, and that at least we can come and visit them, if only for a day.

The day after the angelitos come to visit, you take away the offerings for them in order to put up offerings for your grown-up loved ones who’ve passed. You’ve got till 3pm to change out your offerings- apparently the grown-ups don’t show up till then, although the angelitos arrive at noon the day before. For the adults, mole with chicken is the traditional meal to set out for them. (Mole, pronounced mol-eh is a thick sauce made from hot peppers and tons of other spices- it’s very elaborate and delicious.)You also set out other things they would like- sweet bread, nuts, fruit, etc. You can even set out some tequila or a cigarette or whatever else they might have liked in life. Here’s a picture of the mole.


On our altar, we put up a large photo of Conan’s maternal grandmother, whom he was extremely close to. Next to her, so they could meet, I put up my favorite photo of my Nonna, my mama’s mama, whom I was very close to. In the photo, she’s young, my age or younger maybe, on top of a mountain in Italy, close to the town she was from. Her face is triumphant- as it should be when you’ve climbed a mountain. She’s wearing this cute outfit with polka dots, a sleeveless shirt and what I’d call short shorts, and she’s looking totally self-assured and content. As you should be when you climb mountains all the time, literally and figuratively.

Besides the photo, I broke all rules and traditions and put up my plate of pasta al buro- pasta with butter, Italian style, just like my Nonna used to make, just like my mom makes, just like I learned to make. As I was lovingly preparing it, I was remembering going to my Nonna’s house, and her having all kinds of different shapes of pasta in her cupboard. She would let me pick out which type we’d eat that day- shells or wheels or tubes or various other kinds.  I remember thinking that the pasta tasted differently depending on what shape it was in (and I still believe this). It was the kind of thing I could tell my Nonna and she would never laugh or say it was silly. She would probably ask me why I thought that, and listen attentively to my answer.


Making the pasta for her, setting it on the altar, lighting the candle for her (and another for my paternal grandmother), was the first time in a long time I’d let myself really think about her and what a gift she was in my life. It was one of only a couple times since she’s passed (about a year and a half ago) that I’ve let myself just talk to her. It doesn’t matter to me if there’s really an afterlife, if she can really hear me, if her spirit really comes to visit or not; it felt good to commune with her spirit, to just believe, the way you could when you were a kid, to let go for a minute of the hurt and the loss of her death and to feel her legacy as the joy that it is. For that, I am grateful.

So even though I missed seeing the kids trick or treating, even though I didn’t dress up, even though I missed some of my other Halloween traditions, this is definitely a worthy holiday that we will continue to celebrate in this family. And we’ll keep on doing it with bowls of pasta next to the mole, and however else works for us, because we like to break the rules in this family, and we can mix up and remake our own traditions, happily ever after.

Here’s a picture of Lucia and me at a friend’s house, drinking hot chocolate and eating special dead bread (okay, that’s a literal translation of pan de muertos- a more appropriate translation is something like, Day of the Dead bread)


The bread on our altar here below is from the coast- different regions make different breads, of course. Also pictured are some local foods- chayote (like a form of squash), corn on the cob, and hijos de cuateco (Don’t ask me to translate that. It’s a food that grows wild around here.)


5 Responses to “A Visit From the Dead, Multi-Cultural Style”

  1. wenches December 4, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    Way to have me cryin in my coffee at 6:30!! Really though, thanks for sharing this lovely story. XOX!!

    • exiletomexico December 4, 2012 at 8:32 am #

      aww, you guys are sweet, meg and mama. thanks for reading. makes it less lonely to be so far away.

  2. fml221 December 4, 2012 at 6:12 am #

    Yeah, I’m starting my day crying in my coffee too, 7 a.m.

    Lovely post, and I’m so glad that you remember your Nonna that way. That’s the kind of tradition that she loved and honored too – and of course would have known of. She would have loved knowing you left pasta out for her.


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