Carrying The Lost With You On The Day Of The Dead

Friday is part of the Mexican national holiday, the Day of the Dead. The belief is that on this day, the dead come back to visit. So what can it tell us about the living?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Millions today are celebrating the Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos. It's a Mexican national holiday. The belief is that on this day, the dead come back to visit the living. Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of member station KCRW grew up in the U.S., but she was born in Mexico City. And in this story, she travels home to discover what a celebration of the dead tells us about the living.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE)

ANAYANSI DIAZ-CORTES, BYLINE: (Foreign language spoken)

What you're hearing is my grandma tubed up to machines in a government hospital in Mexico City. When I got in from L.A., she was in her third week in this state.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE)

DIAZ-CORTES: (Foreign language spoken)

I say goodbye. She's conscious. She can't speak. She says goodbye with her eyes. She died a few days after I recorded this piece of tape. I know what I'm supposed to feel, but I don't feel it. I feel cold, hollow inside. My aunt, Lulu, perceives the detachment. Her solution? To take me shopping. I take my microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DIAZ-CORTES: Of all places, we go to La Feria del Alfenique, the official Dia de los Muertos open market of the region. It's a 45-minute drive from Mexico City, and it's huge. It's mid-October, and she wants to beat the crowds, find the best sugar skulls and the best handmade punch paper or papel picado for her altar, or maybe she just knows I need this - refuge amongst people that celebrate their dead, my people. There are 100 booths stocked with sugar-made replicas of entire families of skeletons, animals, personalized skulls.

I talked to one of the most experienced artisans working with the sugar paste.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

DIAZ-CORTES: She explains alfenique is powdered sugar, and it's mixed with lemon and gelatin. She tells me that when you set up your altar for your loved one and if they like an animal, that's where you would place the figurine. El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is November 2nd in Mexico. You can think of it like a dinner party. Your guests are your loved ones, but the ones that passed away. Everything is prepared with them in mind: their favorite dishes, drinks, how they took their coffee, their favorite brand of liquor. It's the ofrenda or offering.

On November 1st, the altar is set up with photographs of loved ones that passed away. Hundreds of orange flowers called cempasuchil, sugarcane, bread, fruit, salt, incense, and the belief is at 12 a.m. on November 2nd, your muertitos arrive to dine and celebrate with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DIAZ-CORTES: I spend five more days in Mexico City. I'm due back in Los Angeles. Immediate assignment, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Day of the Dead celebration. It's my first time there. The event is beautiful but unsettling. It feels so Hollywood, so staged. I'm carrying my dead with me from Mexico City, and instead of peace, these 100-plus overwrought crowded altars are getting the best of me. And all I can think is how are the dead supposed to find these altars?

It's October 27th. The dead know to come on November 2nd. I choose one altar, and I look closer. I make out a family: a musician, a husband who lost his life to prostate cancer. Behind the altar, I find Andrea Espinosa(ph).

ANDREA ESPINOSA: I'm celebrating the life of my husband, Jose Espinosa, my best friend, an amazing musician. To Jose, that's what life was: music and family and love.

DIAZ-CORTES: I look at each different altar after the interview, and it isn't a show or a stage. Every altar has been made by the living, dedicated to a loved one that passed away, and it becomes hard not to hold back tears when I think of my muertitos. The Day of the Dead, November 2nd, is also the day my mother was born. That meant that she was dragged to the graveyard every birthday of her childhood. She hated the ritual. Growing up, I never saw her build an altar.

I talked to my neighbor Zenaida(ph). She's an indigenous Zapotec from Oaxaca, Mexico, and can't imagine life without honoring the dead on this day. Will you help me make an altar for them in the Oaxacan tradition?

ZENAIDA: (Foreign language spoken)

DIAZ-CORTES: When I asked, Zenaida looks at me funny and tells me she can't. And then it hits me. Zenaida can't build my altar for me, just like I can't tell Andrea Espinosa what her altar should look like. I have to build my own altar for my grandmother. I'm starting to understand that this ritual goes beyond tradition. It's about faith, the faith that when we go, those we leave behind will carry us inside of them.

SIEGEL: That story was originally produced for KCRW's storytelling project Sonic Trace by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Eric Pearse-Chavez. Sonic Trace is part of Localore, a national initiative from the Association of Independence in Radio.

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