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Feliz (yes, feliz) Día de Los Muertos

Ofrendas of food and beverages on an altar in Mexico City in preparation for Day of the Dead, October 31, 2008
Ofrendas of food and beverages on an altar in Mexico City in preparation for Day of the Dead, October 31, 2008
Photo by Omar Torres/AFP Getty Images

The sight of altars and sugar skulls has become a common one in Los Angeles and in other parts of the United States, anywhere that Mexican immigrants have influenced the culture. El Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is now as much a part of this season as Halloween.

But much of what has come across, as might be expected with a holiday that is so visually rich, is the art and the revelry. Not to say that revelry isn't a part of it, but this is not, as some may see it, a Mexican version of Halloween. One of the central themes of el Día de Los Muertos that often gets lost in translation is that even in death, our loved ones remain a part of our lives. It can be a bittersweet celebration, but sweet all the same.

There's a nice essay today on the News Taco website from Sara Inés Calderón, who writes about how she grasped the meaning of the Day of the Dead when she began losing loved ones: the Latinized city of Los Angeles, Día de los Muertos always appeared to us as a series of news reports about community festivals and university celebrations, and perhaps even a slice of a lesson in public school. Skulls. Skeletons. Cool.

But it was not until I actually began to lose people in my life — my grandfather, my friend — that the essence of this celebration became real to me. Once someone passes, you are never the same, and remembering them becomes the only way you are still able to access them, or the person you were when they were with you. Honoring your dead — whether it’s by creating an elaborate altar (at the fireplace as we did) or just glancing at their photos, saying a prayer, remembering that, as my abuelito would say, “Recordar es vivir” (to remember is to live) — is actually just another way to celebrate life.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I had a similar experience of the Day of the Dead, until the year after my Cuban-born grandfather died in 1999. I traveled to the Mexican state of Oaxaca the following fall, and was there during the holiday. Witnessing the graveside vigils, picnics and family reunions in a local cemetery, I missed my grandfather terribly - and it all made sense.

I wrote a story back then about being welcomed by one jovial group, several adult siblings sharing a meal at their sister's gravesite. "You must be very close," I said to one of the women:

"We are,” said another woman, smiling as she looked up from her plate. “But you know, this is really just a good excuse for us to get together and eat!”

They broke into exuberant laughter. I found myself laughing with them, the first time I’d ever laughed in a cemetery. It occurred to me that el Día de Los Muertos is not just about remembering the dead. Just as importantly, it is a celebration of life. Life is all the more vivid, and the company of those we love all the more precious, when we are reminded of how fragile and fleeting it is.

So with that, Feliz Día de Los Muertos.