by Carolyn Bick
A week before he died, Francisca Garcia’s brother asked her to make pozole, a Mexican beef soup with hominy and chili broth.
“He knew he was dying. And he asked me for pozole. And I’m pregnant, not feeling well, and he wants pozole,” Garcia said. “I was being grumpy, but my brother was asking me for pozole, and you have to gather a lot of ingredients to make this thing, this particular soup. But I made it. And he sat and he ate three, no, four bowls of it, and he was so happy.”
Garcia’s brother had been staying with her after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1995. Born exactly one year after Garcia — her mother had to leave her first birthday party to give birth — her younger brother wanted to be with her while he died. So, every year since his death, at Día de los Muertos, she has put out an offering of pozole in her home.
Garcia was the cultural coordinator for El Centro de la Raza’s Día de los Muertos celebration. The Mexican holiday festivities took place the evening of Nov. 2 at the organization’s headquarters. Hundreds of families crowded El Centro de la Raza, flooding out the doors of main entryway that opens onto the plaza, where local artisans sold crafts and volunteers handed out pan de muertos, the Mexican bread of the dead. There were also performances by several Mexican cultural, dance, and musical groups, including Hijos de Agueybana and Folklore Mexicano Tonantzin.
The ofrendas, or welcoming tables to the dead, were the main draw of the night. Designed by different community groups and groups within El Centro de la Raza itself, each ofrenda blended a different social justice theme with a traditional setup. The ofrendas covered nearly every topic, from public health, to missing and murdered Indigenous women, to remembering LGBTQ+ icons.
The original Aztec holiday originally took place in the spring, Garcia said. In pre-colonial times, the big cities would festoon their streets and houses with flowers, and citizens would eat and dance, celebrating the here and now on Earth, as well as rebirth, and remembering those who had passed. She said the flowers were especially significant, because they reminded celebrants to enjoy what they have while they were alive: like flowers, everything eventually withers and dies, “but, next spring, there is always the hope that it will live again.”
“Death was viewed as a passage. Birth, before this life on earth, this life on earth, and then a passage, but the spirit living eternally — we needed to invite those spirits to come back,” Garcia said. “The whole point of it, I would say, is remembrance. Not forgetting. Because we believe that the spirit lives on.”
Garcia said the Mexican celebration’s hallmarks come from a mix of pre-colonization and post-colonization traditions. When Spanish invaders colonized Mexico, they changed it to the month of November, to coincide with the European All Soul’s Day. But this didn’t mean Mexico’s Indigenous people abandoned all aspects of their original celebration, Garcia said. They resisted. For instance, she said, while many flowers are used during the celebration, marigolds often predominate festival setups and are not associated with any Catholic tradition.
“It’s more for the smell, so that the spirit can be drawn to the fragrance of the flower,” she said, gesturing towards the fiery orange and red flowers.
Sugar skulls came much later, she said, and represent the original Aztec architecture where skulls and skull imagery were common and had been adorned with flowers in the original celebrations.
Still, other pieces of colonization stuck, Garcia said. Though many Mexicans call the offering tables altares de muertos, or just altares, the word actually comes from the European colonizers, who forced Catholicism onto Mexico’s Indigenous people. The proper term, Garcia said, is ofrendas, because “the altar is where we pray. This, to us, is an ofrenda, meaning ‘we offer welcome.’”
Families put pictures of their deceased loved ones on the ofrendas, as well as candles, their favorite foods and drinks, and, of course, marigolds and other bright flowers. In Mexico, this happens in the graveyard, on the tombstones or at the mausoleums of loved ones. There, Garcia said, families will also clean the spaces, and then spend the night amongst their loved ones, whom they believe come back as spirits to visit their families on earth.
“It’s a way to connect to our past, because it’s more than just this,” Garcia said, patting the ofrenda to her left. “It’s when we gather, and tell stories about that person. … A loved one is never really gone, as long as we say their name. As long as I remember them. Oral tradition we really believe is so important, because that’s how our children will learn, and that is how they are connected to the people in their past, through the stories I tell of them.”
Garcia remembers visiting her grandparents at the cemetery. When she was a child, it was never titled Día de los Muertos, she said.
“It was just vamos a visitar los santos pasados — we’re going to go visit. That’s all it was. We’re going to go visit our departed,” she said. “We’re going to come together to remember them. It wasn’t until many years ago, here, in Seattle, that that title became something.”
“I was just a kid, though. I ran around with my cousins. It was a wonderful place to run around, and it was over days the week before, of going and cleaning, of looking at the tombstones, of cooking at home with my mom and my tias,” Garcia continued, smiling. “Learning all about my grandparents, getting to know all about them because of these stories, and spending time with my cousins.”
Graveyard visits and overnights don’t happen as often in the United States amongst Mexican families and families of Mexican descent, Garcia said, but she said her family does observe the tradition by visiting her brother. Though they visit him more than just during the holiday, Garcia said she makes a special effort to round up her children to make the trip.
“We go have picnics. We bring him flowers. I bring him little windmill things, or flowers, or a cup of chocolate,” Garcia said.
Featured Photo: Maria Batayola wraps marigolds at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, Washington, on Nov. 1, 2018. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)