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The special role of marigolds on the Day of the Dead

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today is the Day of the Dead. And Latino communities across the U.S. are bursting with colorful flowers, mostly orange marigolds that play an important part in the holiday's celebrations. NPR's Adrian Florido sent us this postcard from Southern California.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: About 60 miles east of Los Angeles in the city of Riverside, a farmworker who asked me to use only his first name, Leonardo, is making his way through row after row of shoulder-high marigold plants. He's using clippers to harvest the bright orange and yellow flowers.

LEONARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He planted these flowers two and a half months ago in August, so they'd be at peak bloom this week.

LEONARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: It's the season, he says, of the cempasuchil for the altars of our dead. Cempasuchil is the marigold's name in Mexico, where it's the iconic symbol of the Day of the Dead, a centerpiece of the altars that families build as offerings to their departed loved ones.

Here in Southern California, the flower is everywhere this week - at grocery stores, sold by street vendors at freeway off ramps and here at a stand that Leonardo puts up next to this little plot of farmland. On Sunday, Maria Quintana came to buy four bunches for the altar she was building at home.

MARIA QUINTANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: For her father and her mother, for all the family that left before her, she says. When placed on the altar, it's believed the strong, musky fragrance of the cempasuchil guides the spirits of the dead back to their family's home.

QUINTANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: It makes me happy, Quintana says, that they're going to come visit. She invites me over to see the altar she put up.

QUINTANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: A picture of her parents is surrounded by candles and foods her parents liked.

QUINTANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: For her mom, sweet bread. Her dad liked beer and an occasional cigarette. At both ends of the altar, two big bouquets of orange marigolds.

QUINTANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Quintana removes the petals from one of the flowers and sprinkles a path leading to the altar from the front door.

MARTHA RAMIREZ-OROPEZA: It is believed that they are guided specifically by the scent and the color. Visually, the color - so it's so brilliant that even in the darkness, they can see.

FLORIDO: Martha Ramirez-Oropeza is a muralist and an expert on the Day of the Dead. She loves the marigold because of how its fragrance and its brightness make possible the joyful reunion between the living and their dead every November 1 and 2. This year, after COVID-19 took so many Latinos, that seems important.

RAMIREZ-OROPEZA: So many people grieve, and so many people don't have any closure to this. But we have the opportunity to greet and talk with our dearly departed every year. And it's an amazing experience.

FLORIDO: Laura Garcia says she is excited to welcome her father's spirit home this evening. This morning, she was selling marigolds on the side of a busy street in the city of Santa Ana. But once her shift was over, she said, she was going to take a bouquet home for the altar she put up for her father.

LAURA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: I know he's with me every day, she says. But today, it's just more special.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Santa Ana, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUNS' "W. 16TH ST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.