Ancient celebration flourishes in Seattle

The candles are alight and glowing softly next to the fragrant, freshly made Mexican hot chocolate, which goes nicely with pan de los muertos, bread of the dead. It is the time of the year when we bring out the pictures, and perhaps some personal items of our beloved family members who have passed on, to add on the ofrenda, the offering of welcome, that is being built in the home.

November 1st and 2nd are the traditional days of remembrance and celebration in Mexico, and, as with many cultural migrations, El Dia De Los Muertos is now fully embraced in Seattle. The life affirming customs of this celebration focus on the loving remembrance of relationships that bind us all together. The dead are honored and their spirit made welcome with water for their thirst and their favorite foods, breads, sugar skulls and perhaps a tamale or two for their hunger. There's even a little mole - a wonderful, thick and rich sauce made from several different kinds of chilies, Mexican chocolate, sesame seeds, and various spices that's ladled over turkey or chicken - is laid out for the soul.

Photographs are always placed first on the ofrenda, or, if not possible for lack of one, then a deceased loved-one's name is written on something that can be used regularly: to see, and then say, the name is to keep the person's memory alive. Flowers are placed in vases and fashioned into garlands and crosses before being laid down on the ofrenda, a reminder of the beauty and brevity of life are presented. The marigold is the most traditional flower used in the Dia de los Muertos celebrations. In pre-Hispanic times, the indigenous people of Latin America called this flower the cempasuchil, the flowers of 400 lives. Candles are placed to light the way for the souls on the other side while also representing hope and faith against darkness. Personal items of every day life are added to the ofrenda and remind the living of the journey taken on this earth, of the things loved and left. Then sugar skulls decorated in bright, merry colors that are funny and friendly rather than frightening or spooky: a symbol of death and rebirth used to honor the dead and connect the living to their past.

There was a time when the seasons of sowing and reaping were celebrated for thousands of years among the indigenous cultures of Mexico. These celebrations lasted at least a month, if not two, in late July and early August. The harvest bounty was shared with the living, and even the dead, for they too were part of the cycle of life.

With the conquest of Mexico in the 1500s by the Spaniards came change. The occupying Europeans saw this celebration as one more pagan ritual that needed to be eliminated. The European holidays All Saints and All Souls Day took place in Spain, were sanctioned by the church, and the Spaniards saw to it that the ancient, months long celebrations were replaced with the first two days in November.

But a way of life, and a way of looking at death, that had been embraced by people for thousands of years was hard to erase from their collective memory. To resist change meant death at the hands of the new masters, and so the will of the people was bent but not broken. The resulting resistance created the modern festivity of El Dia De Los Muertos, a combination of ancient indigenous and introduced Christian rituals.

Today these traditions have continued to evolve by embracing the place and customs where we live. On Beacon Hill, El Centro De La Raza has celebrated this tradition for more than ten years. The center opened its doors for the community to both participate and partake in a celebration of El Dia De Los Muertos that lasted from November 1st to the 23rd, much like the indigenous Latin traditions of old. This year's ofrenda's filled the Center's second floor and were fashioned with the help and partnership of the City of Seattle and King County, Comcast Cable, Seattle Parks & Recreation, Starbucks, and many volunteers. In all, eighteen organizations joined in the effort, including Chief Sealth, Ballard, and Roosevelt High Schools along with the Beacon Hill and Bailey Gatzert Elementary Schools.

The different ofrendas created show the diversity of our local culture while simultaneously touching on the universality of experiencing loss of life. For death is not exclusive to Mexicans, and all people want the opportunity to honor their dead. With this notion in their minds and hearts, the staff of El Centro de la Raza opened its doors and gave space and time, to celebrate like the days of old.

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