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For Myrna Balderas Bautista, Day of the Dead is an important expression of love, and a time to pay homage to her ancestors and those that have gone before her.
“Of course, we remember our loved ones all year round, but this is way to create an altar for them and receive them with lots of love. It’s a way to bring them home, so that they know that they are welcome here.”
She sits in front of an altar decorated with colorful papel picado (cut paper) flags, candles, fruit, and sugar skulls. A bottle of tequila is set out for her grandfather, and coffee and bread for her grandmother; there is even some dog food for two dead family pets.
Mirna is participating in a tradition that dates back to long before the colonialization of Mexico by the Spanish. The ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico originally celebrated the holiday during the summer months of July and August, by eating special foods, drinking, dancing and commemorating the lives of the people they had lost.
Starting November 1, Mexican towns big and small fill up with Dia de Muertos markets selling flowers, incense, and decorative items for altars and graves. November 1 is a special day to remember children that have died, and November 2 is spent decorating the graves of loved ones and then sitting with them in the evening hours, remembering old times and telling stories with friends and family.
A special part of the modern-day celebration is for faces to be painted to look like elegant skeletons known as catrinas. The image was originally created by the famous Mexican printmaker Jose Gaudalupe Posada as a satirical representation of native Mexicans who adopted European styles of dress and manner after the revolution.
Mirna sees painting her face as a catrina as a way to reconnect with her past and join in the festive party spirit of this important Mexican holiday. And it really is a party.
“Whenever you invite someone into your home, it’s a party,” says Mirna with a smile.
For many on the outside looking in, painted faces, flowers, and revelry might be all they see of this annual ritual, but for Mexicans it has a deeper meaning. Creating altars and visiting the graves of long-lost loved ones are ways of remembering them in life and a way to provide the dead with a light- and flower-filled path back to the living, if only for one night. Glasses of water are set out for the thirsty dead after their long journey back to the living, and flower petals lead a path to altars and graves, adding a touch of life and freshness for the dead that return.
“I think Day of the Dead is for everyone,” says Mirna, “anyone who believes and wants to celebrate their dead loved ones.”