It’s that time again, when cempasúchil petals and elaborate altars mark the end of October and the yearlong wait to reconnect with lost loved ones: Day of the Dead.
Different than Halloween, Día de los Muertos doesn’t intend to be spooky, or scare the living spirits out of you. Instead of creating fear of the beyond, it honors the spirits’ return to this world. So, no tricks, but lots of treats — for the deceased.
The Mexican tradition, a mix of Mesoamerican indigenous rituals with the influence of Spanish Catholicism, is one of the oldest celebrations in that nation, and in some regions, the efforts for the feast can start as early as two months before the Nov. 1 and 2 celebrations.
Most communities use their savings to create an altar — lighting candles, paying a tailor to create an outfit for the deceased and placing it all among flowers, skeletons, skulls, and pictures of loved ones. Don’t forget the food and drink: tamales with mole (spicy sauce), champurrado (spiced hot cocoa), pan de muertos (Day of the Dead bread), and calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls).
Although the tradition is best known as a Mexican celebration, Caribbean Latinos prepare altars in almost the same way. Most people also keep a smaller, less elaborate altar up all year.
In South Philly, the Mexican community has been growing for 25 years around the predominantly immigrant Ninth Street Market.
Mexican community journalist Édgar Ramírez believes the flourishing of Mexican culture in Philadelphia is due in part to the “national fascination” with its food, the popularity of symbols like the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Day of the Dead celebrations. He also thinks that there is a “symbolic recognition” of the communities’ local contributions and struggles.
“It’s like we are here and we are not here, because we are only in the subconscious of the people,” said Ramírez, producer for and founder of Philatinos Radio.
At a time when Mexicans are worrying about earthquakes and organized crime in their homeland, as well as the appropriation of their culture while they raise children here, we spoke to Philadelphia Mexicans who wanted to share their families’ recipes as a way to honor the authenticity of the traditions of their home state of Puebla.
‘We don’t dress up in costumes, but we make bread’
It is said in the South Philly Mexican communities that Ángeles Rincón, 37, is the only person who offers a basket-shaped Day of the Dead bread at her altar, meant to honor a special person each year. She and her brother, Silvestre, 30, are considered experts at preparing the pan de muerto, and yet their recipe, bread shapes, and ingredients are unique — some contain grains and are sent by their mother from San Mateo Soltepec, Puebla.
Rincón, a mother of three boys who has lived in Philadelphia for 18 years with husband Eleazar Cortés, 37, and her brother and sister-in-law, has been making bread — to honor tradition, not to be sold — for the past 10 years. She reminds her children that the bread must be baked the day before it is put on the altar, as their deceased loved ones will find their way home by following the fresh-baked scent.
Rincón, who with her family owns El Rancho Viejo, isn’t opposed to her children learning about American Halloween celebrations, but they don’t celebrate it at home. She believes holiday rituals can be followed only if you conduct them with respect, so she keeps to making bread for her loved ones.
“We don’t dress up in costumes, but we make bread,” Rincón said.
This year was the first time that Rincón and her family publicly shared their tradition and recipe, at a Day of the Dead bread workshop hosted by the Philadelphia Folklore Project last week. Rincón said her family keeps the bread on their altar for two weeks, after which they decide what to do with the rolls (which symbolize the body and bones of the deceased) and the basket, which, this year, was dedicated to Ana Guissel Palma, a community leader and artist.
Champurrado as service to her family
For the past 10 years, Estela Piña has been preparing champurrado, or spiced hot cocoa, every weekend at her brother’s South Philly restaurant, Tamalex. She and her husband, Alejandro Mondragón, 43, have perfected their techniques, knowing any diversion from the recipe could alter the results, said Piña, 43.
Their restaurant patrons — Honduran, Chinese, American, Mexican — consume about 4,700 tamales and 250 liters of champurrado each weekend. But they make their second-highest amount for Day of the Dead celebrations, after the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Dec. 12.
“There weren’t many places where to find our native food in Philly until the community started to find ways to open up its businesses,” said Mondragón, a native of Hidalgo.
Mondragón passes Piña the sugar, and she adds it to taste. Then all the members of the family-based business try a teaspoon of the Mexican spiced hot cocoa to see if it’s right.
The go-to skull maker
For four years, Ivonne Pinto García has taught a sugar skull workshop for South Philadelphia residents. It’s one way, she says, that Mexican Americans like her 12-year-old daughter, Sophie, can learn about the traditional offerings for the Day of the Dead and enjoy "the best of the two worlds.”
“It’s my duty and a great pleasure to be the go-to person when it comes to preparing these sugar skulls,” said Pinto García.
As she encourages her daughter to celebrate Halloween as well as respect her Mexican ancestors, Pinto García herself takes on a hybrid of traditions, as she has learned to merge her grandparents’ recipe from Puebla with that of her artistic mentor here in South Philly.
The 38-year-old, who migrated from San Martín Texmelucan de Labastida 14 years ago, recommends dedicating one large skull to a deceased loved one — by writing his or her name on the skull’s forehead — and giving the medium ones to the children for eating or playing.
Pinto García’s favorite part of the workshops? Witnessing parents and their children coming together, learning to honor their loved ones with her own tradition and recipe.