Day of the Dead: Mexican holiday celebrates deceased loved ones

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith



If You Go

Day of the Dead at Vancouver Community Library

Death Café, noon to 1 p.m. Nov. 12: Enjoy sweets while talking about death in small discussion groups.

Día de los Muertos, 2 p.m. Nov. 18: Live music, activities, crafts and entertainment including pre-Hispanic and traditional Mexican dancing.

Both events are in the Columbia Room on the first floor of the library at 901 C St.

A line of white flower petals leads to Rosalba Pitkin’s front door, guiding deceased ancestors to her west Vancouver home.

Flowers also symbolize Earth and the temporary, fleeting nature of life. They’re used throughout Pitkin’s ofrenda, or altar, in her living room along with candles, representing fire, and water to quench the thirst of deceased loved ones making the journey to the Land of the Living.

“For me, they are there. You don’t see them, but they are there,” she said.

Pitkin, a native of Toluca in Central Mexico, has put together an ofrenda for Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, since she was 7 years old after her mother passed away. She was raised by her grandparents and aunt and uncle.

“This celebration is very important because of the meaning, because of the connection with my ancestors,” she said.

Day of the Dead is a major Mexican holiday celebrated today and Thursday in conjunction with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which are recognized by Catholics. Pitkin said that typically, deceased children are celebrated on All Saints Day, which is today, while everyone else who has died is celebrated on All Souls Day, which is Thursday.

Day of the Dead is playful and celebratory, even satirical at times, and not somber. The focus is on family, togetherness and gratitude as the dead are welcomed to visit the living.

It’s like a family reunion with people who’ve passed away. If someone recently died, there would be larger emphasis on that person, as evident by photos, notes or poems and foods they like on the ofrenda. Pitkin’s aunt died two years ago, but this year she’s thinking more about people who died during this month’s earthquake in Central Mexico.

A homecoming

Just as Pitkin’s grandparents passed down the holiday’s traditions and rituals to her, she’s passing them down to her daughters.

“I always make a point to come home for Day of the Dead,” said her oldest daughter, Gloria Pitkin, who lives and works in Portland. She missed it last year while in France. “Otherwise, I’ve been at every Day of the Dead party since my birth.”

While the 24-year-old has learned a lot about the holiday and its history from her mother, she’s also studied it.

“I think for my mom, it has a special significance because she lost her mom and her dad so young,” she said. “For me, because I haven’t spent the majority of my life in Mexico — I’ve spent the majority of my life here — it’s the most important holiday to celebrate my tradition and my family. For me, it does have that value because I have such limited exposure to the culture otherwise.”

Day of the Dead was an indigenous Mexican holiday that fused with Catholicism during the Reformation. Spanish conquistadors reshaped cultural artifacts and traditions to conform to Catholicism. For instance, Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of fertility, was turned into Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.

Gloria Pitkin has an Aztec name, Yancuickmeztli, meaning new moon.

Rosalba Pitkin’s grandmother who primarily spoke Nahuatl, an Aztec language, passed away about a decade ago, so Pitkin doesn’t have the opportunity to practice the language anymore. When she was a child, her grandparents would tell stories on the way to the cemetery for Day of the Dead, where they would clean gravestones and arrange flowers. Traditionally, ofrendas are built on top of tombstones, not in living rooms, if relatives are buried nearby.

“At least through my mom, my understanding of death with Mexico is that death is a celebration of life, that death is with us always and we’re always in danger of death, but also that it gives us gratitude for life,” Gloria Pitkin said. “It’s not something to be feared so much as something to be conscious of. Our human journey is to live and to die.”

Losing cultural voice

Day of the Dead is becoming more recognizable to those who don’t celebrate it since movies like “The Book of Life” or “Coco,” which is being released Thanksgiving Day, have popularized the holiday.

Rosalba Pitkin is speaking at this week’s 22nd annual Washington State Faculty and Staff of Color Conference on the cultural appropriation of indigenous rituals such as Day of the Dead. Her talk titled “Welcome to the Land of the Dead — Bienvenidos a La tierra de los Muertos” explains how cultures are disrespected when they’re appropriated.

Movies about Latino culture need to have Latino voices involved in the process along with an attitude of respect, Gloria Pitkin said. It’s one thing when someone who takes part in the culture makes a movie out of it, but it’s another thing when someone who’s not a part of that culture takes it as their own.

“Because our voice is lost,” she said. “You’re taking something out of context and making it about yourself.”

The “Book of Life” was directed by Jorge Gutierrez, who is Mexican. The cast is mixed. “Coco,” on the other hand, features an all-Latino cast and is directed by Lee Unkrich.

Rosalba Pitkin said she didn’t like “The Book of Life.” Regardless of how good the movie is, she said, it gives her pause because the holiday and the culture are being commercialized. Directors are profiting from stories of Mexican traditions and they also profit by promoting negative stereotypes such as Mexicans as drug dealers and gangsters in other movies, she said.

“Disney tried to trademark ‘Día de los Muertos’ in 2013 but withdrew the application after a public uproar that accused Disney of cultural insensitivity,” the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this week in an article about Day of the Dead becoming a bigger part of Halloween retail. Day of the Dead-inspired Halloween costumes decorations and other Day of the Dead-inspired products are increasingly common at major retailers. People dress up like Catrina, an icon of the holiday originally meant to satirize colonialism and the whitewashing of Mexican women.

Day of the Dead is about celebrating life and remembering the dead, not putting up cool-looking decorations or “othering” a culture, Pitkin said. There is meaning behind every item on her ofrenda. “It’s up to us to tell our stories,” she said.

A family affair

Every family celebrates Day of the Dead differently with variations on rituals and foods. For her ofrenda, Pitkin made posole, tamales and mole, which is a traditional and time-consuming dish reserved for special occasions. Pan de muerto, bread of the dead, is made in different ways in different parts of Mexico. The type she has is circular with a top meant to look like bones.

This weekend, lots of people will join her family in celebrating Day of the Dead. At her first celebration in Vancouver, there were a lot more non-Latinos than Latinos. Depending on who shows up, there can be a lot of explaining, or a lot of dancing. Some people bring food.

Gloria Pitkin’s partner, Rhone Geha, 23, said his first time meeting her parents was at their Day of the Dead celebration. Another year, his uncle came to the celebration and brought chicken matzo ball soup, a classic Jewish dish, bringing together two different cultures.

The ofrenda will remain in the living room for about a week.