Soul Celebration

On a night so cold I could feel my bones rattle, I followed the smell of burning wood to a distant hue of gold. The only sounds were my every breath and step. I came to a tall wrought-iron gate, its handle icy cold, and it wailed an eerie cry as I entered.

But inside, what a difference. I was warmly greeted by a sea of glowing amber and a murmur of people, as they talked to their dead in a celebratory tone.

Halloween is for children. Día de los Muertos is for everyone else.

Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a Mexican celebration that captures the idea of unity between life and death. It is believed that, on this night, the souls of the dead return to enjoy the companionship of their families. The Catholic feast of All Souls' Day has merged with Indian rituals of death to give life to this celebration.

Traditionally, unique altars are created to offer the deceased loved ones a familiarity that they can enjoy during their visit back home.

Candles light the way; marigolds represent the Aztec symbolic flower of death because of their intense hue. Incense wards off bad spirits, a glass of water quenches thirst, a photograph honors the deceased and favorite foods welcome them.

It is customary to spend the entire night at the cemetery or around a home altar, holding a candlelight vigil, on the eve of the Día de los Muertos, November 2.

The celebration is observed throughout Mexico, but nowhere so fervently as in the states of Oaxaca and Michoacán. The Zapotec Indians in Oaxaca and the Purépecha Indians in Michoacán celebrate the day with pre-Hispanic undertones, believing that death is not the end, but a new beginning.

This year I will build an altar for the most influential people to touch my life -- my grandmother, mother and father.

I will adorn the altar with marigolds to mark the spot, with candles to light the way, incense to cleanse bad spirits, and their favorite foods to welcome them home.

I will play their favorite music to entertain them while they visit. I will sit and wait, knowing that they will come to visit me in spirit.

This is a celebration that I look forward to like no other.

Because of my newfound knowledge of Día de los Muertos, I am no longer afraid of death. I now celebrate and embrace life.

Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.


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