Celebrating Souls On Day Of The Dead

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Saturday is the Day of the Dead in Mexico and many Spanish-speaking cultures. It is a day to celebrate and remember those who have died. Andrea Seabrook visits the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington D.C., to see the construction of a traditional Day of the Dead altar.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Today is Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It's an ancient celebration in Mexico passed on from the Aztecs and other pre-Columbian cultures. The Day of the Dead is not a day of mourning but a day of celebration, feasting, and colorful altars built for the memories of loved ones. At the Mexican Cultural Institute, a branch of the consulate here in Washington, there's a giant Day of the Dead altar - skeletons, skulls, and streams and streams of tissue paper flags with skeleton designs cut out of them. They're called papel picado.

Umberto Martinez, director of cultural programming at the institute, tells me to tilt back my head and blow at the flags.

Mr. UMBERTO MARTINEZ (Director of Cultural Programming, Mexican Cultural Institute): The belief is that we do the altar because they come to visit us.

SEABROOK: On the Day of the Dead?

Mr. MARTINEZ: Yes, on the Day of the Dead. Their souls come to visit us. So you see the papel picado resembles the wind. They would notify when their souls are coming.

SEABROOK: Oh, so they - OK.

Mr. MARTINEZ: You light up a candle. You see the flowers, the orange flowers, but we call it in Mexico, cempasuchil.

SEABROOK: That's the flower of the dead, or marigolds.

Mr. MARTINEZ: The flower of the dead. Exactly, the marigolds.

SEABROOK: Marigolds.

Mr. MARTINEZ: That's the flower of the dead.

SEABROOK: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARTINEZ: And we do a path with the flower of the dead with candles to lighten their path to our altar to come and visit us.

SEABROOK: And what do you offer the souls? What do you put out to offer?

Mr. MARTINEZ: The food they like.

SEABROOK: The food they like?

Mr. MARTINEZ: The food they like...

SEABROOK: So like what?

Mr. MARTINEZ: And we put it in the altar. For example, here, we are not going to use fresh food or fresh foods because in two days, with the heat, it will rotten.

SEABROOK: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARTINEZ: So we brought these foods from Mexico, this Mexican bread. We have some tamales.

SEABROOK: Tamales.

Mr. MARTINEZ: We got some paper mache food over there in the other box.

SEABROOK: Uh huh.

Mr. MARTINEZ: So we place that on the altar.

SEABROOK: But if you were in Mexico, what would you put on it?

Mr. MARTINEZ: Well, anything. My ancestors like mole, a dish of mole, fried beans, rice. Remember, we party with them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Yeah.

Mr. MARTINEZ: I think - it's interesting because, in Mexico, I don't think we mourn our deads on Day of the Dead. We party with them.

SEABROOK: We party with them?

Mr. MARTINEZ: Yes.

SEABROOK: Umberto Martinez of the Mexican Cultural Institute. Dia de los Muertos is a two-day affair, so there's still time for you to make your own Day of the Dead altar. Get a picture of your late loved one, set it up on the table, and surround it with colorful flowers, candles, and, of course, that person's favorite foods. Remember, no mourning.

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