Lately, I’ve been missing my grandfather, who passed away a few years ago. Perhaps for awhile, it simply felt like it had been too long between visits, and only somewhat recently have I felt, with a pang of melancholy, the realization that I’ll never see him again.
A native of Southeast Colorado, my grandfather, Herman Abeyta, was born a sharecropper’s son in a rural Spanish-speaking community. He and his brothers grew up chasing rattlesnakes around the farm, trying to catch them and remove their rattles to put in their guitars. Later in life, he would sing me Mexican folk songs while playing the guitar, and tell me stories about growing up in his community, Doña so-and-so asking him for marital advice, or caring for his mother at home until she died when he was just 12 years old.
I am not a religious person, despite my forebears' strong embrace of Catholicism — thus my sense that I will not see my grandfather again. Yet there is a day coming soon in which souls have the opportunity to journey from the land of the dead to the land of the living to join their earthbound loved ones for a day of celebration. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican and Guatemalan holiday honoring departed loved ones. It is not, as it is sometimes thought, the Mexican version of Halloween, though the two holidays share some iconography like skeletons and skulls. Rather, it is a festive celebration, a vibrant mélange of Aztec and Spanish traditions with an emphasis on the festivities, not spookiness.
“Halloween is about scaring away bad spirits, while Day of the Dead is about welcoming and honoring the spirits of the people that you love,” explained Ann Macca, curator of education at the Longmont Museum. Longmont is home to Colorado’s largest annual Día de los Muertos celebration, though this year many of the events have gone virtual due to the coronavirus.
“They’re very different though they happen at the same time of year,” she said, noting that this is not a coincidence, instead stemming from the Catholic Church’s efforts during colonial rule to align Indiginous holidays with Catholic ones. “You see skeletons in both — you see lots of scary skeletons for Halloween, but for Day of the Dead the skeleton is cheerful, bright, celebratory. It’s often covered in flowers and beautiful designs, and they’re often dancing.”
Day of the Dead traditions vary across regions, and not every family celebrates the holiday with the same traditions or meanings. One of the main traditional beliefs, however, is that the spirits of deceased family members may visit the world of the living for one day to rejoin their loved ones. To facilitate the journey, many families begin the holiday by going to the cemetery, tidying the graves of the dearly departed, and lining a path from the tomb to the home with the iconic orange petals of marigolds, or cempazúchitl, to show the way home.
Another central tradition is to build an altar, or ofrenda, in the home, a tiered platform covered in a cloth and adorned with photos of the deceased, painted sugar skulls, candles and flowers. Often favorite items and foods enjoyed by the departed during their life will be added to the altar.
“The significance of the altar is to honor loved ones who have passed,” said Gloria Chavira, children and family services coordinator at the Wilkinson Public Library, where in past years, Day of the Dead celebrations have been held. “The altar is usually in the home as it is a family experience to remember loved ones. Candles are lit, and the favorite food of the person who passed is cooked and also placed at the altar.”
While this year marks Longmont’s 20th annual Day of the Dead celebration, which normally includes a popular street fiesta complete with music, dancing, crafts and food trucks offering traditional Mexican delights, this year is a little quieter. Still, organizers have moved events online, offering music and dance performances via livestream and online resources for DIY Day of the Dead crafts at home. To sign up for events, take a virtual tour of this year’s altars on display, or learn more about online resources, those interested can visit longmontdayofthedead.com.
As part of this year’s celebrations, Longmont commissioned Denver artist Tony Ortega to design a community Day of the Dead mural. Ortega guided 36 participants in painting on separate panels before having the panels installed permanently in a public space. Ortega included images from Michoacan and Oaxaca, two Mexican states with rich Day of the Dead traditions, along with images of local mountains, folklórico dancers, mariachi musicians, and dancing skeletons.
For Ortega, who is also the illustrator of three bilingual children’s books including one about a boy's adventures on the Day of the Dead, the holiday offers a unique opportunity to take time to pay homage to loved ones who have passed on.
“I think it’s an important celebration in which you’re honoring, remembering and commemorating people that have passed away that you love and respect,” Ortega said. “It’s a time to reflect on their importance in your life. We call it the Day of the Dead, but in a lot of ways it’s a day for the living, to remember the dead.”
As I reflect on the idea of a day for the living to remember the dead, an image floats into my mind. My grandfather has made the journey back to the land of the living for one day, and I’m playing our favorite folk song, “Cielito Lindo,” on my guitar. Perhaps he’s beside me, strumming along with me as we sing, together in spirit.