Day of the Dead
Posted by Tony & Cheri on October 31, 2008
Living in Mexico has exposed us to many traditions we were never aware of back in the US. One of those we really admire is observance of El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
In Mexico November 1st and 2nd (All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the Catholic church) are celebrated as Dia de los Muertos. It is not a Catholic holiday but a tradition which goes back centuries. During this time people remember lost friends and family whose spirits symbolically return to the world of the living for one night to be with those they love. These are not scary ghosts but memories of the departed recalled and shared by those who love them. It is a chance to honor loved ones who have passed and to acknowledge that death is not to be feared but accepted as part of life.
The spirits are called back to this world by altars called ofrendas, or “offerings,” on which are placed pictures and objects that recall those who have passed away. The altars are festooned with flowers and decorated with candles, crosses and other significant icons. Water and a sweet bread called pan de muerto are also placed on the altar to give refreshment to the spirit who journeys across the void to be with family. A deceased person’s favorite foods or drinks or other objects associated with him are often put on the ofrenda as are candy skulls which symbolize that death comes to us all and is nothing to be afraid of. An altar may be set with cigarettes, whiskey, sweets or anything the deceased liked in real life. We once even saw a marijuana cigarette placed by a friend who explained to us that getting a little buzz was one of the deceased’s favorite things to do.
On the night of November 1st people gather to eat, drink and recall those who are no longer here. For some it is a symbolic celebration. In some areas of Mexico it is believed the spirits of the dead actually return to hear from the living about how much they were loved. The next day on November 2 people in Mexico visit the graves of the departed and party! Whole families visit the cemetery with picnic lunches. They spend the day remembering those who are gone. Tears are not allowed as they may make the path from the spirit world too slippery for the souls to travel. Whether it is symbolic gesture or in true belief of traveling spirits, El Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful gesture towards those who once shared our lives.
When we first started to come to Playa, many restaurants and store had an ofrenda out front. Sadly, nowadays they are rarer as Playa becomes more cosmopolitan. However we have always liked this celebration and this holiday, and so for the last few years we have made our own ofrenda, honoring the memories of family members and friends who we have lost but not forgotten.
This year our ofrenda is decorated with paper coverings, candy skulls, cigarettes, a bottle of Irish Cream liquor, some wooden cats, lots of flowers, candles, pictures of St Jude and The Virgin of Guadeloupe, a cross inlaid with pictures of saints, a nicho or shadow box showing a small skeleton couple holding hands (a Day of the Dead tradition) and a Bible. The following friends and family are part of our ofrenda this year:
Tony’s Mom and Dad, Jack and Rosalie Head. Rosalie’s picture is her high school graduation picture showing her red hair, green eyes and bright Irish American smile. Jack’s picture is when he was 21 just after he made corporal in the Marines on the eve of WWII. It is inscribed “To Rosalie, The Sweetheart of the Marines.” On the back of the picture of Rosalie is a brown smear. It is Jack’s blood. The picture was inside his shirt on the island of Guam when he was hit by mortar fire. He carried it with him through the rest of the war, and still had it when he returned after the war to marry Rosalie. They remained together until Rosalie passed in 1997. Jack passed away in 2002.
Cheri’s dad, Ed Skultety. Ed is pictured on our altar in his US Air Force uniform. He spent twenty years in the Air Force serving honorably in Vietnam. He was later stationed stateside, mostly in Omaha, Nebraska. He married Sally Vernon (Cheri’s mom who now lives in Sacramento) and together they had six children. He retired from the Air Force in 1974 with the rank of Master Sergeant. That year he and the family moved from Nebraska to Pennsylvania where Ed had grown up and where much of his family still lived. He passed away in Pennsylvania in 1985.
Bill and Barbara Oates. Bill and Barabara were dear friends of ours in San Francisco where Bill was a waiter and Barbara a bookkeeper at the legendary restaurant the Washington Square Bar and Grill. We met Bill one day when we sat down to lunch and he served our food. As Bill set her plate down, Cheri exclaimed, “That looks delicious.” Bill said, “you know, it really does.” He picked up a fork from a nearby table and took a bite of her lunch! We were friends ever since. Bill and Barbara were one of the strongest, most loving couples we ever met. They lived through a time when interracial couples (Bill was black, Barbara white) were often ignored at best, or treated with disdain, or worse. They never complained, never returned the hatred they occasionally saw and never looked back. They held on to each other no matter what. They found a wonderful life in San Francisco where they were known at every good restaurant and decent bar in town. After they got older and ill they passed away within a few months of each other…it seemed they couldn’t live without one another. We miss them very much.
Jerry Seawright. Jerry was the founder of the Blue Devil Drum and Bugle Corps. He took a small group of kids in Concord, California and created a performance group which eventually became an international sensation which today still sets standards for excellence. Jerry’s vision led the Blue Devils to win the Drum Corps International World Championship an unprecedented twelve times. The Blue Devils selects teenagers from across the country to come to California and become part of the group of performers and musicians Jerry called “my kids.” He was a special soul who managed to make each member of the corps feel special and important–and he somehow managed to always remember everyone’s name. One young 18-year-old who received a call from Jerry to come join the Blue Devils was Cheri. She was a member of the Blue Devils color guard from 1979 to 1981 (they were named world champions in 1979 and 1980). She then became an instructor of the color guard for the next two years, during which time they won another world championship. Cheri says the Blue Devils gave her an opportunity few ever experience, allowing her to mature, to grow and to see the world. And she largely thanks Jerry for that chance. Jerry passed in 2004 and is still remembered lovingly by thousands of “kids” all around the world.
Larry Hartsell. On our altar, Sifu Larry Hartsell‘s picture is laid on the book he wrote and next to a patch from his martial arts association which he gave to Tony many years ago. Larry was a pioneer in mixed martial arts. He was one of the first American black belts in both Judo and Karate. Later he became one of the few people ever trained by the great Bruce Lee, whose art of Jeet Kune Do Larry helped to carry on after Bruce’s death. Larry never became as famous as some in the fight game. There were no movies or big paydays, but he was one of the truly great and gifted fighters of his generation. And while he sometimes fought with his own private demons, he still had a gentle soul and was a good man. Tony was honored to have known Larry and to have been his student. Larry passed away late last year. We remember him fondly.
Also on our altar are pictures of our many pets, our family, who journeyed here to Mexico with us, or became part of our family after we arrived, four of whom we lost within the last six months: our beloved English Bulldog Huggybear; our sweet cats Belle and Carib who made the trip from San Francisco in our van; and finally Blue and Lola, cats who made their home for their short lives in the garden of the Luna Blue Hotel.
Our ofrenda gives us a chance each day to stop, look at a picture and recall a moment or time with someone special to us. And if their spirits join us for a night then we hope they find nothing but love waiting for them here in this world.
Halloween in Mexico
Mexico never used to celebrate Halloween. In fact, many Mexicans are scornful of the holiday, possibly seeing it as interfering with the sanctity of Dia de los Muertos, since the two holidays fall so close together. As a result, trick or treating, costumes, and the images of ghosts, witches and pumpkins have been relatively unknown here. But with the influx of foreign goods and influences, that is changing. This year, Walmart, Mega and other stores had large displays of Halloween costumes, decorations and bags of candy—in addition to traditional Day of the Dead items. It’s quite fun watching young Mexican children eyeing the colorful costumes and plastic pumpkins while their parents pry them away. Seems that kids here have caught onto the fact that all you have to do is put on a costume, and you can walk around and get candy from people on the street! We have seen more and more children on Fifth Avenue the past few years, for days before and after October 31, taking advantage of what must seem like an incredibly cool custom.
Other than the few trick or treaters on Fifth Avenue, how is Halloween celebrated in Playa? Mostly by expats and tourists in bars! Many local watering holes are having Halloween costume parties, including our own Luna Blue Bar, where we’re having Halloween Happy Hour this afternoon, October 31, from 4-8 pm with a free shot or beer for anyone in costume. You could easily start early and bar crawl your way through Halloween in Playa. If you find yourself in town later today, stop by & say hello. We’ll be the ones in costume trying to keep the locals cats off the ofrenda.