Karen was a Bible school teacher who served in Mexico.
The Languages of Culture: Objects
LISTEN TO KAREN’S STORY AND HEAR HOW HER FAMILY DISCOVERED THEIR NEW CULTURE’S USE AND VIEW OF OBJECTS IN OBSERVANCE OF DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS, AND HOW IT HELPED THEM UNDERSTAND — AND BE UNDERSTOOD — AMONG THE PEOPLE OF RURAL MEXICO.
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My husband was the director of a small Bible school in the state of Hidalgo, in a very rural part of Mexico. We and most of the students who came to the school spoke Spanish as a second language. Both my husband and I taught there.
While we lived there, we observed some of the events that happened around the Day of the Dead. Later, when we lived in the city of Puebla, I had a culture helper, or a culture coach. I coached her in English, and she coached me in culture. She explained a lot to me about Dia de Los Muertos to help me understand Mexican culture.
The Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, was not recognized by many of the churches in our area— they would have nothing to do with it. And so much of what we saw was from a distance.
There were fields and fields of marigolds that were being grown for the occasion. That is the most popular flower used for decorating around the Day of the Dead — November 1st for children and November 2nd for adults.
There would be a procession down the roads and trucks were decked out with all sorts of flowers. Real flowers, paper flowers and what they call “papel de picado,” which is punched paper artwork — you’ll see this in pictures a lot. They would also include different foods. It could be food that their dead departed relatives liked. Tamales are really popular at this time. For children they would put out toys and sweets that would be attractive to them.
People would also walk down the dirt road along with a few people playing an instrument or drums, maybe a trumpeter. They would first go by the church and then to the cemetery.
At the cemetery, they would make a small altar at the gravesites and put out the food and it was much like a party. They’d have candles going and they would sit at the graveside of their departed relatives and they would wait. They expected the spirits of the dead departed to come by and feel welcomed by everything that they had there . . . the candles and the food.
An extra puff of wind, or something like that, would let them know their departed relatives had come by. It was said the departed would pick up the essence of the food and then at some point move on. It was almost like an act of fellowship.
A lot of people would also have an altar in their house. There were flowers and favorite foods, often some kind of meat dish. My neighbor was phenomenal at making a real traditional dish for this called Mole. There’s also a special bread for Day of the Dead. It’s called Pan de Muerto and that might be put out on the altar with all sorts of candy, chocolate, fruit, skulls and skeleton objects.
They would make sure that there was water on the altar to quench the thirst of the spirits that were going by. And salt was on the altar for purification. My neighbor insisted that there should also be a figure of a dog to guide the way. Those are just some of the objects found on altars in people’s homes.
Sometimes people would put altars in the marketplace and in front of the churches.
The other objects associated with Day of the Dead, are people painting their faces or wearing masks that look like skulls and skeletons and dressing in festive clothes. There is a figure called “La Calavera Catrina,” a tall female skeleton wearing fancy clothes and a hat. She was made famous in the early 1900’s by an artist, José Guadalupe Posada.
Even though Day of the Dead is at the same time of year as Halloween in the U.S., the two celebrations are not directly associated.