Dia de Los Muertos – A time of power, reflection, and celebration

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I was number seven in a large Latina familia. Being born the youngest daughter had many beneficios.  My two sisters hovered over me like mourning doves cooing every time I did something cute, smart, or funny.  Being the youngest meant that my sister Rosemary sewed me special clothes.  My sister Maggie paid for braces to straighten my teeth and have a beautiful smile.

Once they even took me to an upscale restaurant that we couldn’t afford. “This is so you will know how to act when you are taken to fancy places,” they chorused. I got all kinds of help, protection and love from my older sisters. They were my champions, my greatest supporters

My Mother Maria was one of those tall coastal women from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. From her I got strength, determination, the belief I would achieve my dreams.  She worked in the school lunchroom cooking and cleaning which meant I went to Catholic school and got una buena educación.

Maybe they believed their hopes and dreams – the sacrifices we made as immigrants – would all be fulfilled when their youngest daughter went off to college and got a degree.  All my life I have been motivated to achieve to make them proud, to return the investment that they so lovingly made in me.

They say que el la vida siempre hay bueno y malo or as Anglos might surmise into each life a little rain must fall. So it has been for me as I outlive the beautiful tapestry of women who were the cradle of my life. Gracias a Dios that we come from a culture where we stay connected to those who have come before us.

 El Día de los Muertos

JuanaDDM2Anthropologists have observed that the Latino culture has a mystical or spiritual sense that reaches beyond the material realm. Nowhere is that more palatable to me than on Día de los Muertos (the day of the dead) a pre-Colombian celebration observed on November 1st.  On this day we take time to remember and connect with our loved ones who have passed away.  Día de los Muertos is a blessing that allows connects us to our past and allows us to remember the gifts that have been given us by our ancestors.

Many people also celebrate Halloween at this time, but there is a big difference. Halloween speaks of ghost and goblins, vampires and zombies, witches and devils to scare away bad spirits away.  Dia de los Muertos invites our loved ones back to guide and protect us.  It celebrates connections that live on! It’s not scary – it’s sacred!

This is especially meaningful for me because I get to welcome back my mother and sisters and express gratitude for all they gave me.  There is great power in acknowledging the sacrifice, vision, and endurance of the women who have come before you.

During Dia de Los Mertos take time to remember your loved ones – celebrate their lives – and give thanks for their contributions to your life!

Gather Pictures and Favorite things: Create a Dia de los Muertos Altar

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The centerpiece of Dia de los Muertos is the altar. These can be very elaborate, but also be very simple – the important thing is to welcome and to reconnect with people by remembering them and the things they loved.

Want to do an altar this year? Place some marigold flowers in a vase and light a few candles.  Buy some sugar Calaveras (skulls) and skeleton figures.  Find pictures of your grandparents, friends and relatives you want to remember. Gather some of their favorite items or things they use to enjoy. For my father I place a small glass of brandy; for my mother chocolates and music by Julio Iglesias, her favorite Spanish crooner.  For my sister Rosemary a sewing thimble since she was such a clothes horse. And for Maggie, I dance some salsa.

To welcome your familia cook their favorite dishes – after all you are inviting them to visit – so be hospitable.  Tell stories about their lives – the Latino culture is based on the oral tradition and we can exaggerate events so they are almost mythical.

Find pictures of your family and create your altar to share with others. Spend a few minutes each evening lighting a candle, remembering, and inviting your loved ones to continue guiding and supporting you.

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Make this a family and community celebration:   Remember wisdom, gifts and lessons

The night of October 31st the cemeteries in Mexico are aglow with candles, marigolds, and Kahlo lilies. The whole community commemorates together.  Families gather with food, music, and drink. There is much talking, story-telling, and remembering.  Mescal made from the maguey, a sacred plant in Mexico, is passed around to keep the spirit warm for the night-long vigil.

You can invite people to share a favorite meal or drink of their departed relatives.  Tell stories about them.  What made them special? Toast their lives and contributions.  “Los Muertos” deepens the circle of life, strengthens the connection between generations. In the Mexican tradition people dress up with painted white faces like skeletons.

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Have people reflect on and share the wisdom, gifts and lessons from their relatives’ lives.  For instance, my sister Rosemary was stylish, self-educated, a businesswoman, a powerhouse, and a matriarch. She always thought of family first. She taught me that I can achieve my dreams and do it in a way that uplifts others.  

Reflect and Plan: How do you want to be remembered?

In Oaxaca, Mexico the evening of November 1 is alive with costumes, bands, food and drink. People parade singing and dancing from house to house. They dress up like cadavers with white faces sometimes humorous and whimsical and dressed to the nines. This speaks to a different relationship with death –and the afterlife. Not a scary or dark event – people laugh at the “grim reaper.” Death cannot separate us from those we love and we rejoice that we have escaped death and lived yet another year.

“Los Muertos” reminds us that la vida is fleeting – the time to act, to do accomplish, and to celebrate is now – ahora!

During this solemn and yet festive time – Take time to reflect on your own life journey and the legacy you wish to leave.   How do you want to be remembered? What brings meaning to your life? What is one thing you can do to advance your legacy?

Oh yes, and you can ask your dearly departed for advice and counsel. I asked Maggie what she would do if she were still alive and she responded “Dance more!”  My father told me to remember to turn off the lights when I leave, and I heard him like he always did, “Do you think I work for the electric company?”

Juana Bordas is the author of two award winning books: Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age and The Power of Latino Leadership.  You can connect with her on Juanabordas.com.

All photos courtesy of Juana Bordas.