Little Altars Everywhere…and Dia de los Muertos

We have a few family Halloween traditions. Jay has always been the pumpkin carver, and our children, young and old, come over and we enjoy the time together. I’m not tremendously enthusiastic about Halloween, but it’s fun to see what the girls will choose for their costumes and then to watch their eyes bulge at the glory of so much sugary loot!

Little Red Riding Hood and a little hippie girl. Karina doesn’t really know what a hippie is, but she wanted the tambourine.

Suspense and a little creepy is fine with me, but I don’t like anything even approaching violence or horror. I’m not sure I even really like skeletons.

So with my aversion to some of the typical symbols of Halloween it took me many years to finally take the time to understand Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. Because I didn’t understand the celebration, it seemed oddly out-of-place to see very young children playing with skeletons, carrying sugary skulls and wearing skeleton masks. I just didn’t like it.

In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday celebrated on November 1, connected to All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day (November 2). Observance of the holiday can be traced back to an ancient Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, but the holiday has spread throughout the world. The celebration honors the departed souls of loved ones who are welcomed back for a few hours. Many of the themes and rituals are pre-Columbian and mixtures of indigenous practices and Catholicism, including building private altars with favorite foods and beverages, photos and memorabilia of departed loved ones. Entire families may  spend the day cleaning and decorating graves and “picnicking” in the cemetery.

Traditions and activities vary according to region and in Southern California there have been signs of Dia de los Muertos for weeks now. Museums have invited school children to submit masks and paintings for parades and processions. Small tokens of folk art are sold for home altars. Local cemeteries participate in celebrations promising a party atmosphere.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery, known as the final resting place for Marilyn Monroe and many other Hollywood celebrities, is hosting the largest  Dia de Los Muertos celebration in California this weekend, with hundreds of Aztec dancers in full costume, regional arts and crafts and plenty of authentic Mexican food. Costumes and celebratory artifacts are encouraged.

This video from last year’s Hollywood Forever festivities will show you how the face painting and makeup, ghoulish and macabre, can be a little disturbing if the meaning and significance is misunderstood.

In the Mexican tradition the focus is to gather friends and family together to remember loved ones. Love and care go into creating altars and the laying out of offerings for the dead.

Tradition says that when the souls visit the altars they cannot eat or drink what is offered, but they absorb the energy and aroma of the food. Candles are lit to welcome the spirits, and incense is burned to guide the spirits back to the altars. Marigolds also have a strong fragrance and the petals are sprinkled in front of the altar and on paths.

Salt is placed in receptacles or placed in the shape of a cross, representing the continuance of life and photos and special objects representing the life of the deceased are placed in honor of the loved one. Altars also usually include the dead person’s favorite foods, as well as sugar skulls, fresh fruit and a special “bread of the dead,” pan de muerto.

I visited the 29th Annual Day of the Dead Altars & Ephemera exhibit at Pasadena’s The Folk Tree. The exhibit featured traditional altars in memory of loved ones who have passed as well as a very large selection of Mexican folk art commemorating this major Mexican holiday.

I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to take photos of the altars. They were very personal and moving and a camera was intrusive. I noted altars of all shapes, sizes and dedicated to people of all ages. Some of the more emotionally sensitive altars were dedicated to the memory of children. A large altar was dedicated to the memory of Neil Armstrong, and another to Dick Clark. Both were very detailed and provided space for visitors to leave notes and blessings. The altar dedicated to Dick Clark offered small paper disks/vinyl records for visitors to inscribe personal messages.

Items sold for decorating altars
Altars are sometimes made public or remain in the home.

I appreciate the tradition, although very different from my own cultural heritage, because it offers such a unique way of keeping the memories of loved ones alive.   Although the symbols aren’t particularly comforting to me, I’ve had it explained that skeletons and skulls are not considered objects of fear, but instead are ways of mocking death. The festivals celebrate the unity of life and death.

Dia de los Muertos is a celebration that honors the dead, and although from a typical American perspective it may appear to be an irreverent celebration, it is not meant to in any way trivialize death, but instead to represent and affirm the belief in an afterlife and ease grief.

Perhaps if you see evidence of  Day of the Dead celebrations this year you’ll take a closer look. And perhaps there will be aspects of this celebration that will have meaning for you, too.

Mexican poet Octavio Paz (Nobel Prize, Literature) explained the relationship Mexicans have with death in his book, El Laberinto de la Soledad.

In translation he says:

For a resident of New York, Paris or London death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. A Mexican, on the other hand,  frequents it, defies it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it’s one of his favorite toys and his most permanent love.”

I probably won’t be starting a food blog, but tamales anyone?

I came to a very significant realization this weekend. I primarily think of myself as a pragmatist, but every once in a while I realize I have several hidden-to-me pockets absolutely filled with flights of fancy!

Some time around mid-summer every year…EVERY year–I begin to think about how lovely it will be to begin baking and preparing favorite Christmas goodies. High on my list is fruit cake, or some-such baked delight requiring a little extra time and planning.

And every year, we WAIT for fall! I’m still waiting. This weekend the temperatures broke above 90 degrees both Saturday and Sunday. Low humidity coupled with the deadly combination of high temperatures and seasonal Santa Ana winds have kept Southern California on fire alert.

It just doesn’t bode well for Christmas pudding!

This weekend I followed up; however, with a new adventure.  My friend Linda and I took a tamale-making class! Yes, tamales!

 Our class was offered by Tarascos Mexican Restaurant. Antonio was a very attentive and patient instructor.

Traditional foods of the Mexican culture are very strongly represented in Southern California, and for those of us who make our home in this region, bring on the tacos, enchiladas and burritos–and for a special occasion, tamales!

Tamales, a delicious Mexican dish traced back to the Ancient Mayan people, are prepared with a wide variety of meat, cheese or vegetable fillings surrounded by a corn masa dough,  wrapped in a corn husk and then steamed. Tamales in some Latin American countries use banana leaves as the outer wrapping.

We were provided prepared masa (dough), made from freshly prepared hominy. In the dried and powdered form it is called masa harina, and once reconstituted with water the dough is used in making corn tortillas, tamales and other Latin American dishes.

This was a hands-on project! Years of teaching preschool made it easy for me to relax with sticky fingers mixing masa with paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, salt and a final addition of  soy bean oil  into a thick, peanut butter-like texture.

The corn husks (ojas) had previously been soaked in warm water to soften them in preparation for the filling. Masa is first spread in a thin layer across the open husk, and then topped by roasted vegetables and Cotija cheese, or chicken and tomatillos or any combination, including a mole, the generic name for a number of Mexican sauces. We were provided the basic ingredients for this time, but there are endless possibilities for tamale fillings!

When the tamales were  prepared and enveloped in the husk, they were tied closed by a piece of the corn husk, wrapped in an additional outer layer of paper to hold them together in the steaming process, then placed in a large pot for the two-hour steam bath.

Due to the labor involved, tamales are more typically reserved for special occasions. There are many little tricks to making a well-crafted tamale, and I have a lot to learn if I’m going to begin making this a part of my holiday traditions. But the first efforts were not bad! They tasted great, and the lesson learned is to perhaps make the masa layer a little bit thicker so it will hold together even better.

Another lesson learned? Those who create food blogs have my admiration! It was a challenge to take photos with sticky fingers!

And to my family…it’s a good thing that I’m the only one who likes fruit cake, isn’t it? I’ll buy myself a nice cake and maybe some figgy pudding at Cost-Plus!

And next year I’ll be ready to make the Christmas tamales!

Tarascos Mexican Food
3319 W. Sunset Blvd.
Silverlake, CA 90026

How are General George S. Patton, the San Gabriel Mission and an old grist mill connected? Come take a field trip with me and I’ll explain.

Mark Twain said, “One of the most admirable things about history is, that almost as a rule we get as much information out of what it does not say as we get out of what it does say.”  

As I continue to study early California history, I uncover more stories connected  to early mission life, and the more I discover, the more I realize I now have additional research questions.

I suppose this is why historians often choose a particular era or even one single historical event and then dedicate their work to becoming experts. I have no design on fashioning myself into an expert, but I’m definitely hooked and have multiple areas of early California history begging for my attention.

This week I was able to stay very local, within five miles of my home, and take my field trip to another historic landmark. El Molino Viejo, or The Old Mill, a former grist mill associated with the operation of the San Gabriel Mission.

The mission was founded on September 8, 1771, dedicated to farming and self-sufficiency. One of the remaining mission structures is less than ten miles from current mission property, the Old Mill, built by the Tongva-Gabrielino Mission Indian laborers around 1816, as designed by Franciscan Father Jose Maria de Zalvidea.

Between 1816-1823 the Old Mission gathered water from an adjacent canyon and the mill was responsible for grinding enough wheat and corn to feed the mission inhabitants.

Be sure to read the story on the plaque and see how General George Patton recovered the millstones.

A surprise to many who live locally, the water that left the grinding area then flowed to what is now the very popular Lacy Park. The padres used the water that accumulated into a bog  for wool-washing, and as a tannery and sawmill.

In 1846, Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor or Alta California sold the property and it is there that new stories open into the settling of the Pasadena area. I am working on those bites of history and will look forward to sharing them with you as I do a bit more local touring.

I hope you’ll enjoy photos of the current mill site . The mill is the oldest commercial building in Southern California and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The grounds are beautifully landscaped and maintained by The San Marino Women’s Garden Club, “The Diggers,” with specific attention devoted to native plants. This late in the season there isn’t much in bright color, but I’ll be going again in the spring to note the changes. It is really quite lovely as it is with natural brush, many fruit trees, wild grasses and succulents.

The birds, bees, butterflies and small animals are very much at home!

Part of my personal study is to better understand complex stories and find a way to share them without overwhelming amounts of information. My exercise in studying the historical record is indeed at least scratching the surface of what is “said and unsaid.”

Indigenous “Californians” date back some 13,000-15,000 years. It’s impossible to study the life and activities of the mission without acknowledging that all mission success was realized at the expense of the native Gabrielino-Tongvan people. Their story is much more complex than I can develop in a single blogpost, but there are 6,000 Indians buried at Mission San Gabriel Arcangel.  There is a lot to learn.

And as I share, I don’t expect others to remember all the details, but I hope it excites you enough to think about what little historical field trips you might make to better know your own local history. Be careful, though. It’s addicting.