Wake Up Call

Food and Spirits

The day was eerie. A slow drizzle of rain fell to earth like tears of those from above. The sky was a gray that made everything else look like a black-and-white photograph. Night was falling. I was anxious and leery about where I was heading.

I could feel my heart racing as I walked the beaten path to this place. The wrought-iron gates stood 12 feet tall and gave a horrific hallow scream as I pulled them open, giving me the creeps. The night had grown pitch-dark and silent. As I entered this holy ground I was greeted by a sea of glowing amber. Thousands of candles of all shapes and sizes and what seemed like millions of marigold flowers glowed against the black backdrop. As I walked along the dark cemetery wall in the chilly night, I could hear the murmur of the people as they talked to their dead, smell the delights they brought as offerings.

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 Soul's Day merged with Indian rituals of death to give life to this celebration.

Traditionally, unique altars are created to offer the deceased loved one a familiarity which 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.

The air was filled with the smell of burning incense, fragrant flowers, burning campfires and every imaginable food. As I walked, I was greeted by families celebrating life, waiting for their loved ones to come back and visit. It was not a mournful place. There was animated conversation, smiles, tequila and food. The creeps had left me and I was filled with a combination of joy and sorrow, for I was now missing my own dead loved ones.

My feet were beginning to hurt and I was feeling the cold in my bones as I approached a woman sitting by two graves.

"Join me, I am alone tonight," Sofia said, smiling. She handed me a folded cardboard box to sit on because the ground was cold and wet. The fire welcomed me like a friend as my hostess handed me an earthenware cup full of delicious ponche, a hot cinnamon and fruit drink.

"This is my husband and here is my son," Sofia indicated, as she pointed to the two graves in front of us. There were marigolds in empty coffee cans and candles in Coke bottles. By the fire there were pots full of red chile tamales -- her husband's favorite -- and tacos.

As a preamble to her prayers, this soft-spoken Purépecha woman lit dozens of candles on top of both graves. Sinking to her knees, she began to chant the melodic prayers of thanks and gratitude. As the hours passed, I was entranced by her rituals, finding myself unable and unwilling to move.

As the morning slowly approached, we feasted on more warm cups of ponche and delicious tamales and tacos. To make sure there was enough left for her visitors, she placed six tamales and a dozen tacos on a plate on top of her husband's grave.

As the sun slowly appeared over the horizon, the amber glow of the cemetery began to fade and families holding vigils sat quietly as an eerie silence enveloped us. I thanked my new friend for sharing not only her food and fire, but her celebration of life.

It is customary to spend the entire night in the cemetery on the eve of the Día de los Muertos, November 2, holding a candlelight vigil. All throughout Mexico the celebration is observed, 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, it is a new beginning.

This year I will build an altar for the two most influential people to touch my life -- my grandmother and mother. 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. 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 is a local chef who spent a year researching Mexico's backroads for her cultural and epicurean portrait cookbook Las Doñas Mexicanas: Mexican Woman, Mexican Food.

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Silvana Salcido