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Dia De Los Muertos: A Day Also For The Living

Monday is All Souls Day, or as is celebrated by millions in the southwest, Dia De Los Muertos.  We  went on Tuesday to Centro CulturalAztlan--a place credited with helping re-energize San Antonians with observing the celebration.  Dozens of students from Holy Cross High School showed up with their creations--altars, dedicated to loved ones who have passed on.

Marissa Pelayo decorated a standing four-feet by three-feet cardboard placard altar with smiling photos, colorful papel picado skulls, and bright yellow marigolds.  Her altar recalled the memories of her grandfather, and Aunt Norma who recently passed away.

"She was like a second mom to me. And Leandro--he was my grandpa. He passed away when I was about to turn 4, and I was really close to him, too."

Marissa is taking part in a custom that is believed to have originated hundreds of years ago with the Aztecs and Mexico’s indigenous people. The Day of the Dead – Dios de los Muertos – includes decorations and celebrations that honor the dead with comical depictions of skulls and skeletons, and personal items favored by the departed. Family members often decorate the graves of their loved ones with a favorite food or beverage. Centro Cultural Aztlan Executive Director Malena Gonzalez-Cid says the holiday is infused with the Christian and Catholic imagery. Her childhood Dia De Los Muertos traditions stem from when she visited her grandmother in the small town of Allende,  Mexico.

"November 2nd is a day that you would never miss and you would go out there and clean their resting place, their tombstones, and dress 'em with flowers," she said. "My grandmother did have an altar, an altarcito, a home altar that you have up all year round.  And it was a table and it was usually covered with a pretty lace table cloth, and you set up family pictures of dearly departed, family members, saints, holy water. A cross."

And often there are personal items: perhaps a guitar they played.  Their favorite shirt, or maybe even food, Gonzalez-Cid continued. 

"I've seen women cook all day, and cook that person's favorite meals. From enchiladas to mole to posole. And those offerings are then offered on the table of the altar.

By the 1970s some feared the Dia De Los Muertos traditions might fade in South Texas.  So the art director for Centro Cultural Aztlan invited Hispanic residents in San Antonio to display personal altars from their homes at the group’s gallery. It’s a tradition that’s continued.  

Holy Cross High School Spanish teacher Alejandro Flores explains why he had his students make miniature altars this year that will be displayed for Monday night's celebration.

"This project is supposed to represent an understanding of how cultures represent or celebrate death.  To mourn the person but also to celebrate their life."  

Student Alejandra Gonzalez created an altar honoring two people close to her heart.

"Doing my grandpa and his brother is pretty hard, because as you're doing it it brings back memories. You want to make it as nice as possible because their memories and who they were deserve that." 

She painted a tree from which sprung pictures of them and implements of their lives. 

"I chose to paint it because my grandpa was really big into painting and he really loved art."

The Spanish teacher Flores reflected on the project. "We've shed tears, we've cried together as a class. I know I like to give the story of my mom because I tell them that this is the woman that made me. If it weren't for her I wouldn't be here." 

Malena Gonzalez-Cid is happy that an interest in the old tradition is finding a new home with the young.

"It grounds them in helping them to understand what death is about. And that we accept that death is a very natural part of the cycle of life. That everything that begins ends at some point."

Marissa Pelayo says her generation is now part of carrying on the tradition. And she plans to continue it with her children.

"Of course! It has such significant meaning to it. I want to keep doing it for them. And my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, however long I live to be, I want them to do it."

And one day it may be her memory and life that’s commemorated with an altar. 

For more on Centro Cultural Aztlan, go here

For more on their Dia De Los Muertos event, go here

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii