PITTSFIELD – DÃa de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an increasingly popular holiday in the United States, but most Americans do not know the origins of the holiday that honors the dead through a celebration that emphasizes on family reunions.
The history of Dia de los Muertos dates back some 3,000 years to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, where, according to History.com, âthe Aztecs and other Nahua peoples living in what is now central Mexico had a cyclical view of the universe, and saw death as an integral and ubiquitous part of life. “
“Upon dying, it was believed that a person was going to ChicunamictlÃ¡n, the land of the dead. It was only after passing through nine difficult levels, a journey of several years, that the person’s soul could finally reach MictlÃ¡n. , the last resting place.
âIn Nahua rituals in honor of the dead – traditionally celebrated in August – family members provided food, water and tools to help the deceased on this difficult journey.
These ancient rituals, History.com says, were aligned with the Roman Catholic holy days – All Saints and All Souls – during the colonization of Mexico and Central America by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, resulting in contemporary celebrations of DÃa de los Muertos.
And while the Dia de los Muertos ceremonies are primarily associated with Mexico and Mexican-American communities, the annual festival is also celebrated throughout Central and Latin America, where, importantly, traditions and celebrations differ by region, state and country.
DÃa de los Muertos is celebrated by many members of the Latin / Hispanic community of the Berkshires. Laura Cabrera, who lives in Pittsfield but is from the Berkshires via Sheffield from Veracruz, Mexico, grew up celebrating DÃa de los Muertos – a tradition passed down through generations in her family.
âI remember we used to go to my grandparents. At that time, we did not have a car and had moved to another small town. When we went to visit my grandparents we would walk and it would take three hours. It was a big party, especially for the grandparents – it was a tradition with their ancestors, which my grandmother passed on to my mother, âCabrera said in a recent interview.
“His [more than] just the tradition, the way it feels, it feels so real. I was not afraid [of the dead returning] when I was small. I was excited by the smells of the food. It was like magic. It was special to have the whole family together, âshe said.
Cabrera, a member of the Spanish-speaking community advisory network at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and 413 Latinas, said that in addition to helping set up the ofrenda (altar) at Berkshire Community College this year, she and her focused group on the artists, IM Art, will host a celebration on October 30 at Race Brook Lodge in Sheffield, where they will assemble an altar, explain what it is and sing representative songs of DÃa de los Muertos in Mexico.
Recently, we asked Cabrera to help us better understand the celebration of Dia de los Muertos and some of the traditions that go with it. Here are some facts she shared on DÃa de los Muertosâ¦
1. DÃa de los Muertos is NOT Mexican Halloween.
Thanks to the festival’s flawed commercial marketing, some people began to mistakenly identify it as Mexican Halloween. While the two holidays overlap in the belief that the dead can walk the earth at any specific time of the year, the similarities end there. Unlike Halloween (with its origins rooted in the Celtic feast of Samhain), where costumes are donned to hide from the spirits that walk the time of a single night, the DÃa de los Muertos festivities welcome to the home of deceased relatives. who are treated as guests of honor. In fact, most of the festivities are aimed at helping family members get home.
2. DÃa de los Muertos is celebrated on several days.
In the Cabrera family, DÃa de los Muertos begins the evening of October 31, when the gates of heaven open just before midnight (November 1).
âMy mother said that this night is for souls who died in accidents or trauma. We put a candle on the altar, with water and salt. The candle is to light the way for them. The water is welcoming. The water and salt is to quench their thirst. We have prepared them a small plate of rice, “said Cabrera.
November, 1st is reserved for the souls of deceased children.
âAt 11 am, we remove everything from the altar. At noon, we take out a new candle, water and salt. We take out different foods: candies, apples, chocolates, sugar skulls, and most importantly for me – bread of the dead, which is shaped like little figurines of children. It would smell so good. We would also bring out tangerines. We had tangerines growing outside our house, so we cut them and took them out too. “
November 2 is a day for deceased adults.
âIt starts at noon and ends at noon on November 3. At noon, we remove everything that was provided for the children and take out the mole and tamales. My grandmother, mom and aunt cooked mole all day. About two hours before preparing everything, they would start making tamales. The first plate of mole, the first tamale, the first cup of hot chocolate go to the altar, for the dead are our special guests. Everything smells so good, âCabrera said.
“We put a lot of flowers – marigolds – outside [with the candles, salt, water, rice and other foods]. Marigolds are the traditional flower of the Day of the Dead, they are beautiful. We know when the Day of the Dead is coming because [marigolds] grow in the woods. “
3. The ofrenda is one of the most important parts of the celebration.
In Spanish, ofrenda means offering. During the celebration of DÃa de los Muertos, the ofrenda refers to an altar built specifically to hold food and drink offerings for returning relatives. This sanctuary of offerings is not used for worship, but rather to hold photographs, mementos and items needed by the dead.
âThe altar is, most of the time, in the living room or in the center of the house, with chairs around,â Cabrera said. “They’re built in levels. The first level, at the bottom, is where some people put the fruits – tangerines, oranges, bananas, rice and other foods, mole, tamales.”
The upper levels are usually adorned with clothing or small items that belonged to the dead and photographs of the deceased. The upper level is usually reserved for images of saints and crucifixes.
“My grandmother had a picture of her mother and my uncle. When they were cooking, [my grandmother, mother and aunt] would speak of our ancestors. They were talking about my uncle, who was very special, and sharing memories of him, the same things every year. “
Articles generally found on the ofrenda:
- Candles: Help light the way home for the spirits.
- Water: Helps quench the thirst of the spirits after their journey home.
- Salt: Represents the continuity of life.
- Marigolds: Known as cempasÃºchitl, these flowers symbolize death. Their powerful scent also helps bring the dead back to their altars.
- Incense: It is said that the scent of copal incense guides spirits to their altars.
- Photo: A framed photo of the deceased to whom the altar is dedicated.
- Pan de muerto: Also known as the âbread of the deadâ, the pan de muerto is a symbol of the dead.
- Calavera de azÃºcar: Symbols of death and the afterlife.
- Fresh fruits: Typically mandarins, oranges, bananas.
- Foods: Mole, tamales and tortillas. Also, the favorite foods of the deceased.
- Toiletries: Hairbrush, mirror and soap with a small towel to refresh the mind.
- The deceased’s favorite drink – tequila, whiskey, soda or whatever.
- Souvenirs and other items that the deceased loved in life.
- Images of saints or other role models who were important in the life of the deceased.
4. Food is a big part of the festivities.
âOne of my favorite memories,â Cabrera said, âis sitting with my grandmother and watching her clean dried pepper for a mole. We are making a mole for the holidays, weddings or birthdays. I recently called my mom and asked her it would take a long time to prepare all the food. She said, about two weeks, starting when they buy the peppers and all the spices they put in the mole. Then when they start to make the mole they don’t stop. I asked my mother, ‘How long do you take to cook the mole?’ I asked because I have memories of her cooking all day She said it would take a day, they would do it all day The day before the peppers would be put in the water.
5. It is about celebrating life and family.
âWe meet at some point when we’re alive, and we meet at some point every year when we move into the next part of life. I think it’s beautiful, because I haven’t feel like my family members are dead, âCabrera mentioned. âWhen I cook, I hear my grandmother’s words and I feel like they are not dead. For me, she lives with me because I carry her in my heart. left me, I think that if we pass them on to our children, our traditions, beliefs or myths will never die.
“For me, feeling the energy of our loved ones; the smells [associated with their cooking] reminds me of sharing food and family. These are the most important things to me. “