When pressed to name my favorite holiday, I’m a little hesitant to answer. We’ve just had an entire month of really terrific ones which involve really good food and spending time with my family (oh, and praying). Springtime also has some really good ones, but the truth is, the holiday which holds a special place in my heart falls on November 2: Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
In Mexican-Indigenous tradition, there is a belief that our beloved ancestors and loved ones who have passed on – or returned to the source, as the Aztecs viewed it – come back to our world on this day. This return visit is celebrated with memories, blessings, good food and drink, flowers, candles, music, friends, family, and much more. Every year, my Chicana friend and former neighbor extraordinaire Tania hosts a gathering at her home. Due to a new job she wasn’t able to host one this year, but I took piles of photos last year. I’m so happy to be able to share them with you.
Tania starts preparing for the feast long before the actual day. I’ve been lucky enough to join her and her family around the kitchen table to hand-stuff masa, a corn dough, into corn husks for tamales, a Mexican dish prepared for special occasions. She stuffs and folds hundreds of tamales, some vegetarian and some with chicken, which she then steams in huge pots on the stove. (Tania tells me that it’s traditionally made with lard, but luckily she is not an animal eater. Score one for the Jews!)
On the evening of November 2, we arrive at her home. Bill, Tania’s wonderful husband, always prepares a trail of flower petals, which helps our beloved relatives find their way to the ofrenda, the community alter. The ofrenda is covered in pictures and symbolic memories; Tania always leaves out a cloth and water so our ancestors can wash their hands and do a little freshening up.
On top of the hundreds of tamales, Tania also prepares many more traditional Mexican dishes, including a mole, a chicken dish with a sauce made of dozens of spices including chocolate, chili and cinnamon; tomatillo salsa; nopales, an edible cactus; beans, rice; and of course, her father Oscar’s famous flan. Lots of flan, so much so that Rich and I would store eight or so in our fridge in the days leading up to the event. Our reward? An entire flan, just for us.
As friends and family mingle and enjoy the Mexican feast, children spend time at the big kitchen table decorating sugar skulls.
As we finish up our meal, Tania gathers us around the ofrenda, shares words of wisdom, and invites us to share memories of our loved ones who have taken the long trip to join us for the holiday.