By Maria R. Perez, MSSW
In our culturally diverse community, we cannot discuss familia and ancestors without bringing up November 2nd – Dia de Los Muertos. In and of itself, the celebration of this date is a hodge-podge of ancient and modern traditional bits and pieces from around the world. Yet, to Mexicans, it is a special time when our dearly departed are remembered and celebrated. Disney’s animated movie, Coco gave us an extremely specific point of reference. With classic Disney fantasy and magic, and no scary ghosts or ghouls, Coco simply shows that if you die and you are not remembered every year by your loved ones, your spirit–your last essence–dies and totally disappears.
On November 2, 2019 family and friends gathered to celebrate our dearly departed as a neighborhood. The vecinos that gathered have lived on this street over 30, 40 and 50+ years. In effect by now we are familia. Preparations for our community Day of the Dead altar were started months in advance. We also decided that as Catholics, this was not just a seasonal decoration, but a prayer altar that would include the recitation of a novena (a nine day prayer series) dedicated to our ancestors that would conclude on the evening of the 2nd of November. Even the folks that planned to join us from out of town started the prayers while still at home.
An extra activity went beyond the altar and the prayers — As a group we started off on that Saturday morning on a pilgrimage to the cemeteries where our departed friends and family were laid to rest. Thirteen of us caravanned as we visited four of El Paso panteónes. We brought along flowers and a bottle of Grand Old Parr blended Scotch whisky, the libation of choice. It was our father’s favorite whiskey, and other ancestors would also appreciate it (or so we felt). We mapped out and timed our pilgrimage so we could be back to our house in time for the evening celebration. The Procesión started off towards Evergreen Cemetery on Alameda across from Chico’s Tacos. Many of us had never been to this camposanto. The obvious absence of visitors was sad – It was all very dry, no flowers and with many dilapidated tombstones. Ironically, many of El Paso’s pioneer families like the Farahs are buried there. I had not realized that even Victoriano Huerta, the assassin of President Francisco Madero, is also buried at this Evergreen Cemetery!
We visited the Ft. Bliss Cemetery, Evergreen East, and concluded at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Ysleta. A wild hare appeared for us at Mt. Carmel — Yes, even an alebrije joined us! The spirits had their guardians and guides! We highly enjoyed reminiscing together. Some had died when we were still children, others had died more recently.
After much researching and garnering as many details as possible our beautiful Altar de Muertos was a true homage to our ancestors and all who had moved on ahead of us to that holy place. We had the marigolds – el cempaspuchitl to lead the ancestors to our offerings, the arch representing the place of passage, the multiple levels indicating Heaven, Earth, and the underworld, plus the depiction of the four elements. Papel picado stood for Air and candles for Fire, while little piles of seeds and grains were symbolic of Earth. Water was placed as agua bendita, as well as in a tiny functioning fountain where the spirits could quench their thirst. We placed some of the ancestors’ favorite items, and of course, El Pan de Muertos and various food ofrendas, the favorites of our muertitos! It was particularly interesting to be joined by three young persons who had not grown up in a Hispanic culture. They embraced it all, and their sense of awe was palpable.
All Photographs with Permission of Maria R. Perez.