Tag Archives: Day of the Dead

Trading Out Halloween

2 Nov

“Look at this sweet baby, 100% Mexican now” my father-in-law, Arturo, would say about Lucia soon after our arrival. Although even then, despite my hormones still raging, I suspected that his intentions were not malicious, it was still difficult not to let the steam shoot from my ears in offended rage. “Nope, she’s still just 50% Mexican,” I had to insist every time. Because it felt like I was being written off in that equation- my half of the genes, my more than half of the work of bringing her into this world, not to mention whatever unquantifiable portion of raising her that I am responsible for. It felt painful and malicious, even if my vague sense of rational brain 2 months postpartum could theoretically not take it personally. I think I can assert now, 2 years later, that Arturo was mostly just excited to have Lucia here (mostly, though, because he does have a bit of a nationalist streak, too).

I can’t predict exactly how Lucia will feel about or choose to represent and explain her “50/50” identity when she’s older. I imagine that it will change tremendously at different points in her life, just like everyone’s identity does. All of us, of course, no matter where we grow up, are a giant mix of influences. I doubt anyone thinks of themselves as exactly 50% like their father and 50% like their mother. So what does it mean to have parents from two different countries? What does it mean to have dual nationality? What does it mean for my “half” of the heritage that she grows up in her father’s land, in this culture? And when my half is a weird mix of a mix of cultures anyway, thanks to the strong Italian influences on my mom’s side of the family?

All parents want their kids to be like them in the good ways, and hopefully not follow in their footsteps in their faults or weaknesses. If only life were that neat and tidy, right? Similarly, I would like Lucia (and her future brother or sister) to have only the best of both (all) cultures, please and thank you.

I hope she appreciates all the fabulous parts of Oaxacan culture, and can reject some of those nasty sides, or that we can minimize their impact at least. For instance, I hope she shares her bag of chips or cookies with those around her without needing to be asked, the way people automatically do here (such a small gesture,but poignantly important). I hope she can learn how to rely on friends and family for help without having a complex about it, just knowing that we all have to help each other to get by in life. But we’re gonna have to figure out some alternative educational situation, because the public school system down here is a famously poor and corrupt one. (Although her Papi went to public schools and still managed to have enough outside influences in his education to actually learn things, so there is hope.) I’m sure her Papi could give a much bigger list of things he hopes to impart to her from his childhood culture, and pitfalls he wants to avoid. But that’s his part to tell, not mine.

For my part, for her Kentucky (and Italian-American!) half, I’d like Lucia to have some fabulous corn bread and greens recipes, for example. I’d like for her to avoid entirely that whole “the U.S. is the biggest-baddest-bestest place on Earth that should control the rest of the world because it’s really the only place God approves of” sort of mentality. I hope she can appreciate a good bourbon with her mama (and her papá) when the time is right. I hope that she can spend enough time in the U.S. or somewhere else with more racial and ethnic diversity than here. That she can learn first-hand about many people’s customs and heritage that are different from hers (and not just different because she’s the weirdo half-gringa)- something possible in Louisville, Kentucky, but not too likely here. I want her to be able to appreciate the importance of a good stoop or porch, to sit out on in the evening and be social with the neighbors, perhaps with some iced tea (or bourbon!). I hope that despite the distance she can have some equally strong bond and pleasant associations of her grandparents in the U.S., the way I think about my Nonna getting together with my mom and my aunt, eating Doritos and Diet Coke, salami and really good quality whole wheat bread that my Nonna would buy.

We can already see some of this working itself out. Conan and I, thus far, are her biggest influences, and she mostly does what we do. She eats her vegetables and tries chorizo with her Papi. She devours tamales and al dente pasta with equal gusto. She speaks English and Spanish. She says please and thank you and washes her hands before meals, because that’s what we’ve taught her, mostly by example. Most of the things from my upbringing and heritage that I want for her I can (attempt to) instill in her myself. I can cook her cornbread. We can listen to Hank Williams (Sr.) together. We can even catch fireflies and sit out on the porch.

But there are some things that I loved as a child, some things that I still hold dear, that I probably won’t be able to provide. I can’t teach her to lick honeysuckle. She’ll probably never know about snow days, and getting off school and going sledding. And sadly, tragically perhaps, I don’t get to share my joy of Halloween with her.

Missing Halloween is a really big deal to me. Bigger than all the other U.S. holidays that we’re not there for. (About as heartbreaking as missing WorldFest, the yearly festival of cultures in Louisville) I adore Halloween. Starting with costumes and the whole idea of dress-up. When I was a kid, I loved deciding on a costume, which usually my parents would put together (not those store-bought costumes). I dressed up as things like a camera, a 3-headed alien, and Catwoman (with homemade “boots,” shiny plastic-ish material with holes cut for laces to put on my shins). As I teen I had fun with ironic dress-up, going as Barbie one year, helping my mom dress up as a punk rocker. I still love seeing what my outlandish friends can come up with, too, although perhaps the trio that one year that did the twin towers with airplane costume crossed the line.

As a kid, we would trick or treat for hours on end, my friends and my sister and I complaining that we were ready to go home, my mom and her friend denying us, telling us we were crazy to give up on the candy so early. They’d convince us to go a while longer, and sure enough, it was always worth it in the end. My dad would go crazy in competition with the neighbors to have the scariest, most creative Halloween decorations on the block, adding new stuff every year- a skeleton hanging from a noose, a stuffed Jason-like character sitting on the porch swing.

I love the idea of Halloween as a night when the veil between the worlds of the dead and the living is thin. I love the scariness of it all, the horror film reruns, the possibilities that come with invoking something beyond the day-to-day. I love that it is a day (a night, really) of fun and magic and sweets, and not the sort of high-pressure let’s-hope-the-family-can-get-along holiday like Christmas. It’s not a shady celebration of colonization like Thanksgiving, nor a holiday based on a religion that I have lots of issues with. It’s the U.S. holiday I most want to share with Lucia. And it’s not celebrated where we live.

But there is Day of the Dead, a two-day long celebration which is equally fabulous, although different from Halloween (I wrote about it in detail two years ago- https://exiletomexico.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/a-visit-from-the-dead-multi-cultural-style/) It’s something her Papi grew up with and loves, and it’s a holiday for the whole family. I have to accept that I can’t give her all the same good things from my childhood, but there’s lots of good stuff from Conan’s childhood, too. There is plenty of joy to be shared, from here and from there, adding things we make up all our own as a family. So I’ll keep cooking pasta al dente for the Day of the Dead altar, to honor my Italian grandmother alongside the mole for Conan’s grandmother. We’ll have to appreciate all the good stuff no matter where it comes from, take some bad with the good, just like everyone else. And Lucia will be 100% Lucia, Mexican and Kentuckian and Italian and whatever other bits and pieces of identity get thrown into the mix. Perhaps the most important thing is just to instill in her that her identity is perfect and right just how it is, no matter how different from everyone else’s around her. I hope that she can learn to appreciate all the parts of herself, without having to put anyone else’s identity down, still knowing that everyone else’s culture and identity is just as unique and wonderful as hers, in their own way. If we can pull that off, then I can deal with not sharing Halloween with her. After all, parenting is always an exercise in compromise.

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.)