WASHINGTON – Members of Washington High School’s multicultural club “La Onda” gave the students and faculty a taste of Mexico by celebrating the country’s holiday of “Day of the Dead” or “Día de Muertos” as it’s called in Spanish.
The students decorated an offering table in the garden area of Washington High School. There, they made an offering or “ofrenda” to their deceased loved ones by putting up pictures of them and making food. The holiday is celebrated over two days, Nov. 1-2. Practitioners believe that their deceased loved ones visit them on these days, which is why food is prepared for them to eat.
Mixture of cultures
Heather Lujano is a social worker for the Washington Community School District where she heads the Language Instruction Education Program (LIEP) and bilingual outreach. She remarked that the current practice of “Día de Muertos” is a combination of indigenous religious practices and Catholicism brought by Spaniards.
“The festive days were actually months of the indigenous calendars of Mexico, such as the Aztec calendar, in which 21 days of the year were dedicated to honor deceased children and the following 21 days to honor deceased adults,” said Lujano, who added that the holiday was whittled down over the years to its current incarnation lasting two days and coinciding with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
The ofrenda is placed either in the home or on the graves of the deceased loved ones. Lujano said the tradition is alive and well in Washington and perhaps surrounding communities, too. She mentioned that she spoke with local historian Mike Zahs, who remarked that these Latino cultural traditions have become more visible in the Iowa cemeteries he visits regularly.
For the ofrenda that the Washington High School students made, the students placed artifacts from Mexico, flowers and a traditional dish called “pan de muerto,” a pastry made especially for the Day of the Dead. A few students made sugar candy skulls called “calaveritas de azúcar.”
A typical ofrenda will include items beloved by the deceased, such as their favorite foods, beverages or candies. The ofrenda includes photographs of the dead, and often a symbolic glass of water, since practitioners believe the souls that travel to visit their families are thirsty from the long journey.
“The belief surrounding Día de Muertos is that the souls need the families to place their favorite items/foods on the ofrenda so the souls can locate their family on a brief visit back to Earth on the eve of Nov. 1 and 2,” Lujano said.
La Onda’s ofrenda had photos of loved ones who have passed away, photos of pets no longer here, and photos of famous people who have died.
Lujano said it’s hard to overstate the importance of this holiday.
“Día de Muertos, in some areas of Mesoamerica, is a larger celebration that Christmas,” she said. “I have lived in communities such as this while abroad. There are towns in Mexico and Guatemala that work to prepare for this holiday for several months before the days of Día de Muertos. The roots of this holiday run deep and are an important part of several Latino cultures. I believe this holiday is also important because it is a healing time for families who have suffered a painful loss and provides a healthy, symbolic remembrance of their deceased loved ones.”
Lujano said La Onda’s ofrenda was received very positively by the teachers and staff of the school.
“I received several emails congratulating the La Onda group on the ‘lovely, beautiful, fascinating display’ - to use some of their words,” Lujano said. “Some of the teachers who were mentioned in the poems also reached out to say how much they enjoyed these traditional expressions of verse.”
The poems Lujano is referring to were written by anonymous students in La Onda. They are known as “calaveritas literarias,” light-hearted poems recited on the Day of the Dead to sprinkle humor on these reverence-filled days.
“Our poems were outstanding, poking fun at some of the teachers and what might happen if they encountered the traditional figures like ‘skeletons’ or ‘Catrina,’” Lujano said. “‘Catrina’ is a flamboyant legendary figure in Mexico: a female skeleton who wears a wide-brimmed hat and an elegant evening gown.”
Lujano has copied a few of the poems, written in Spanish and reproduced here in both the original and in an English translation.
Estaba la maestra Willis calmada
Sentada junta a una velita y
Llegó la calaverita
Le dijo claramente
‘Vamos, flaquita’ - que fue lo último que supo de vida!
Ms. Willis patiently waited
Right next to a delicate flame
Then, ‘Skeleton’ showed up and clearly stated;
“Let’s go—slight Willis”
…which were the last words that she heard him exclaim!
Estaba la maestra Schiebel dando clases de inglés
Cuando apareció la Catrina
Simplemente quiriendo aprender inglés
La maestra Schiebel muy nerviosa hasta el inglés se le olvidó
La huesuda muy enojada de un brinco se paró
Y se llevó a la maestra derechito al panteón!
Teaching English class was Mrs. Schiebel
When ‘La Catrina’ appeared,
Simply wanting to learn some English
But Schiebel felt stuck, quite simply was nervous-
Momentarily blanked out ALL English--
Not even one word she gave;
So up jumped ‘Catrina’ to reclaim this disservice,
And whisked her right off to the grave!