Latino culture, Latino family tradition, Uncategorized

The Icons of Day of the Dead

La Catrina- Jose G. Posada etching, 1910 Mexico
La Catrina- Jose G. Posada etching, 1910 Mexico
November first begins the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) festivities and whose roots can be traced back to indigenous cultures. The Aztecs had a celebration in the ninth month of their calendar with a celebration to their goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen or  “Lady of the Dead.”

 

Souls did not die, they rested in Mictlan. Her role is to keep watch over the bones of the dead and she presided over the ancient festivals for the departed. She and her husband, the King of Mictlan, were depicted as skeletons and lived in an underworld of bats, spiders and owls.

The calavera, or skeleton is an icon of the DDLM. It has now evolved to stylized and colorful versions of the skull or skeleton figures. You’ve probably seen hundreds. You can find the history of the sugar skulls here.  Many times you’ll see skull shaped breads, cookies or candy. I had these delicious cookies last year:

IMG_0322
Another icon of  DDLM is La Catarina. She is originally found in a 1910 zinc etching by Jose G. Posada, Mexican printer maker and cartoonist. Later La Catrina was stylized as a female skeleton dressed in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her hat originally is related to French and European styles of the early 20th century. She is meant to portray a satirization of those Mexican natives who the artist, Jose Posada, felt were over embracing European traditions of the aristocracy in the pre-revolutionary era.
La Catarina
DIego Rivera’s  “portrait” of Catarina popularized her in this 1946 mural.
The Kid-Diego Rivera. Wiki Creative Commons Lic.
The Kid-Diego Rivera. Wiki Creative Commons Lic.
The spirits of the deceased are thought to pay a visit to their families during DoD and the families prepare an altar, another icon, for them. The altar is used to hold offerings, or ofrendasfor the departed. Their favorite foods, photos, and mementos are often placed on the altar together with items the deceased enjoyed:  toys, candy, liquor, hobbies, etc. A bar of soap, towel, bowl of water and other grooming items are traditionally left at the altar with the belief that the dead have been on a long journey and would like to refresh themselves. 
Day of the Dead Altar-Mexico, Wiki Images
Day of the Dead Altar-Mexico, Wiki Images
An icon that celebrates the indigenous roots are the Four Elements: wind, water, earth and fire are often represented on the altar. Wind is sometimes signified by papel picado that moves in the breeze. Candles depict fire, food represents earth, and liquids represent water. The cempasuchitl (Mexican Marigold) is an Aztec tradition, and another icon, which says that the twenty-petal flower attracts souls to the altars.
In the last ten years, Day of the Dead celebrations include both traditional and political elements, such as altars to honor the victims of the Iraq War. There are updated, inter-cultural versions of the Day of the Dead such as the event at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, (a very cool website). This year the Smithsonian Institute has a celebration-on 3D! 
Smithsonian Institute
Smithsonian Institute Dia De Los Muertos
The DDLM’s has become more widely known and accepted. Although I didn’t grow up with DDLM’s, I did grow up with small altars in our home, where we did have statues and prayed for the departed throughout the year. This was more in the tradition of Catholicism.

This year, like the last three years, I’m attending a DDLM party at the Ventura County Museum, which features crafts, altars, drinks and dancing. Whichever way you honor your loved ones and those who have departed, may you have a memorable Dia de los Muertos.

Ancestors, Antepasados, Coping with Grief, Grief, Latino culture, Latino family tradition

Remembering Antepasados/Ancestors

My aunt, Tia Connie, decreed by the doctor to live for perhaps six more months, passed on a few days ago-a month after the pronouncement.  

It’s true that she had a long life, close to 88 years, on this side of the universe. But it’s also true that 88 years is not long enough for her family.


My mother’s sister, Concha, or Connie as she was known, was her only connection to the ancestors, antepasados , those who came before. 

It is like the ancestors held threads in their hands, to the past, present and future. First there was an abundance of bright colored threads, as strong as three ply twine, with numerous threads connecting and lengthening like an Aztec Codice. Because we did not have abuelos, our tio’s and tia’s were our ‘anchor’ threads.

Mom’s parents died when she and her younger sister were children, leaving her eldest sister a mother figure at 14 years of age, her second to oldest brother, of 15 years of age, the father figure. The eldest brother, 17 years old, enlisted in the Army when WW II commenced.  All of them gone now. Now only one of those anchor threads remain. 


The aloneness reverberates through my mother’s grief. On the afternoon of my aunt’s passing, I went over to my mother’s home to give her the unfortunate news. She tells me she ‘felt’ her sister pass that morning. Mom has been ill for a couple of weeks and wonders, out loud, how long she has left. There is fear in her voice. She says she’s not ready.

Her statements fill me with anxiety. I feel pressure in my stomach, a thumping in my chest. Mom is my only connection to my antepasados now. My biological father is still alive, a couple of years older than my mother, but I have never met him. I don’t have a grip, not even a fleeting touch to that side of my heritage. My hands and heart have always been firmly held in the Alvarado Gutierrez histories that now include several different surnames.

Part of the preparation for my aunt’s funeral has been the gathering of photographs from her own collection and my mothers. My cousins, two granddaughters and I comb through several large sticky paper photo albums. 

One of the books has a warning taped to the inside cover: “Don’t take these photos,” signed with the full name of my aunt. My aunt was a homemaker, single mom, working mom, grandmother, great grandmother and great-great grandma. She was simply “Nana” to the subsequent three generations.

Her photographs give a pictorial to her familial codex. Black and white photos from the 1940’-50’s of beautiful young sisters with cousins, friends, husbands and children fill one album, meticulously labeled with names. 

Polaroid snapshots, from the 60’s-70’s, mark birthdays, baptisms, and weddings. We travel through decades of fashionable clothing, hairstyles, automobiles, and living room furniture, stopping for family stories along the way. We remark at how young they and we once were-also thinner, and seemingly taller. Memories and laughter fill the air. Antepasados permeate these pictures.

The photo albums from the 80’s onward are dotted with grandchildren, grandnephews, great grand children and numerous school photographs, as she was a ParaEducator for the local elementary school district.  

Today my cousins have more funeral planning. I’ll help them write the obituary, order flowers, visit my mother, and then print out the last photograph I took of my mom and her sister two days before she passed on. 

We will gather together soon, at a velorio, wake, rosary and Mass in my tia’s honor. We will strengthen the threads of our lives, anchoring our children and children’s children, holding onto our families for what I hope is a very long time. 
Champurrado, Chicano Christmas, Latino family tradition, Mexican Cooking, Mexican Holiday food, Mixed Families, Tamales, Vegan Son, Wine and Tamales

Christmas-Chicano Style

Mexican Nativity
Mexican Nativity
 
It’s a Chicano style Christmas in our house. We blend Mexican traditions with the Anglo-American since my children are third generation Mexican Americans mixed with French and Blackfoot Native American on their dad’s side.
My mother was born in California from immigrant Mexican parents. I was born in California and grew up in the 70’s, hence the term I use to identify myself: Chicano/a. The kids identify as multi-cultural. So our traditions are a mix of all our mix.
 
 
During Christmas time we make traditional Mexican ‘red’ tamales(chile and pork), green ones: grilled, peeled California chiles with Pepper Jack and Monterey Jack cheese, and the modern ‘healthy’ ones:  roasted chicken and tomatillo sauce. 


I’m getting a little loca from the shopping and preparation. The tomatillos, cilantro, and jalapenos are on the counter ready to boil, grill and blend for salsa verde. Bags of New Mexican Red Chile wait to be toasted with flour and oil. The pork loin is roasting under mounds of garlic and onions.
Abuelita (Mexican chocolate) sits in the cupboard next to the piloncillo (raw brown sugar cones) and maiz (cornstarch) for champurrado while the milk and soymilk wait in the fridge.(I am making vegan champurrado too for Vegan Son).
The See’s Nuts and Chews and Peanut Brittle, our reward after finishing our work, is hidden from everyone. The Merlot and Cabs wait patiently on the buffet table.
We start the tamale assembly line bright and early…uh, maybe not very bright and not too early…tomorrow morning. For a couple of hours, there will be calm before the storm of family, kids, music, laughter, gossip, warmth, and familiarity. All the great things one could wish for during the holidays. 
In the past week, I’ve come across some funny Chicano style songs to accompany our tamale making fest. I wish I could have found some accompanying music. Use the same melody as you would with the American version and snap your fingers for some rhythm. 
 
Arte Y Loqueras

From the talented Unknown Mami:

On the twelfth day of Christmas

my Nana gave to me
doce pork tamales,
eleven full piñatas,
ten chiles rellenos,
nine Padre Nuestros, (Our Fathers)
ocho tostadas,
seven Tias chismiando, (Aunts gossiping)
six kinds of chile,
five nalgadas (I was bad), (butt spankings)
four jalapeños,
three pairs of chanclas,
dos saladitos,

and a perico in an aguacate tree.
 
And by Felipe Campos, here’s his Chicano version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: 
 
Tis the night before Christmas and all through the casa
Not a creature is stirring. Caramba, ¿que pasa?
The stockings are hanging con mucho cuidado
In hopes that St. Nicholas will feel obligado.
To leave a few cosas aqui y allí
For chicos y chicas (y something for me).
Los niños are snuggled all safe in their camas
Some in vestidos and some in pajamas.
Their little cabezas all full of good things,
They’re all esperando qué Santa will bring.
To all of the children, both buenos y malos
A nice batch of dulce and other regalos.
While mama worked late in little cocina
El Viejo was down at the corner cantina
Living it up with his amigos. ¡Carajo!
Muy contento y un poco borracho!
And soon he’ll return to his home, zigzagueando,
Lit up like the Star Spangled Banner cantando
Outside in the yard, there arose such a grita
I jumped to my feet like a frightened cabrita
I ran to the ventana and looked out afuera,
¿And who in the world do you think que era?
St. Nick in a sleigh and a big red sombrero
Came dashing along like a crazy bombero!
And pulling his sleigh instead of venados
Were eight little burros, approaching volados.
I watched as they came and this quaint little hombre
Was shouting and whistling and calling by nombre:
“¡Ay Pancho! ¡Ay Pepe! ¡Ay Cuca! ¡Ay Beto!
¡Ay Chato! ¡Ay Chopo! ¡Muraca y Nieto!”
Then standing erect with his hands on his pecho
He flew to the top of our very own techo.
With his round y gran belly like a bowl of jalea,
He struggled to squeeze down our old chimenea.
Puffing, he finally stood in our sala,
With soot smeared all over his red suit de gala.
He filled all the stockings with lovely regalos,
(For none of the niños had been muy malos).
Then chuckling aloud, seeming muy contento,
He turned in flash and went like el viento.
And I heard him exclamar – y eso es verdad –
Merry Christmas a todos! Feliz Navidad!
‘Twas the Night before Christmas

Happy Holidays and may your traditions, old and new, find their way into your family festivities. Enjoy.

Christmas Traditions, Family, Latino family tradition, Mexican Cooking, Tamales, Wine and Tamales

The Tactical Tamale Plan

It’s tamale making time. The season is just like Christmas. You look forward to the joyful day with some trepidation. Why? Because of the time it takes for planning, buying, wrapping, steaming. See, just like Christmas.

After Thanksgiving my family, including my brother, sit down and draw up our tactical tamale plan. First we have to decide on a day. Who’s working, who’s not, who’s traveling, and all that. This is how the initial conversation starts:

1. How many pounds of masa do we need? We did 35 pounds last year, not enough. Yeah, not enough green tamales, let’s make more of those, and less of the red pork. No, more red, less green. Let’s do chicken ones. NO, stay traditional. How about sweet? Hmmmh, we stink at making sweet, let’s buy those. We need a vegan recipe (for the vegan son). Forget that, do those on your own. Okay, okay, let’s get back to how many pounds of masa.

2. We decide on 40 pounds: 10 lbs. red pork, 20 lbs. green chile, and 10 lbs. of chicken with tomatillo (mom makes a disgusting face like she’s throwing up-she hates chicken). Phone rings. Add 5 more lbs for nephew who can’t join us but will pay for additional tamales. Use pork shoulder, lean but not too much. How many dozens does 40 lbs. make again? Geez, this year someone write that down, please.

3. Where are we buying the masa preparada? L.C’s is $1.79, forget that, it’s masa not dark chocolate. But it’s smooth and covers the ojas so well. No, last time there was a fight in the line, ‘stas loca. Women rolling on the floor for a bag of masa.  P.V’s is $1.19. Heck no, it’s crowded 24/7 and we have to masarle (knead lard into it). What about your neighbor with the bakery? Okay bro, that’s your job.

4. Who’s making the chile? You? Maybe next year. Ancho? Poblano? New Mexican? Okay, Ancho.

5. How many can’s of green chile’s, how many pounds of Monterey Jack cheese? Buy the shredded one, not the 5 lb blocks. Who cares if they cost a little more, if you buy blocks you’re shredding the stuff.

6.  Olives, no olives? Some olives, yes, some.

7. Ojas from P.V’s? They’re a good price but the cornsilk is still on them and some are too little, we got to piece them all together and stuff. Winco in Fresno has  ‘pre-soaked’ ojas? No me dijas. And they’re big and pretty? Yeah, they’re all evenly cut and no cornsilk, soak for 10 minutes. Really? Buy us those.

8. We’re starting at 9 in the morning because that means 10. Make sure everyone does the prep work before we get together (8 pairs of eyes shift to the one who insists on buying cheese in a giant block).

9. What kind of munchies? The baked Brie at Costco is the bomb, would go well with Ramos Torres Vino Tinto. Bring a Cabernet, don’t forget white for mom. Somebody better bring salad too. Who’s bringing the See’s Nuts and Chews and Peanut Brittle? We gotta eat, those tamales take three hours to cook. We need to put the first batch in the tina (see above photo) by noontime, 1 o’clock by the latest. Remember, everyone over the age of 5 spreads. No work, no eat.

10. Redo all of the above two more times before December 15th.

The conversation is exhausting. Imagine the shopping and set up. On the appointed day we suit up in our various aprons and lay out the various utensils we use to spread the masa on the ojas. We inevitably have the argument of butter knife versus spoon as the best utensil for a smooth application, who spreads the best, who’s taking too many breaks along with the family gossip and remembrances of previous years of tamale making.

Someone starts a pot of beans and throws in onion and a jalapeno for flavor. We spread, fill, fold, and stack at least four tamale pots. After the first batch is done, we unroll, sample, and decide if they need to steam longer or not.Time to make some Mexican rice to go with the meal. The kitchen is filled with the earthy smells of nixtamal corn, spicy chile, garlic and roasted chicken. We’re done with eating salad, brie, and crackers.

Few things are a better sight to see than steaming tamales unrolling onto a plate with just the right amount of pork in red ancho sauce enclosed with a layer of masa that is not too thin and not too thick. They go well with  Tempranillo, Malbec, or Vino Tinto.

After a couple of pots of tamales are ready, we sit down with throbbing feet, red sauce stained aprons and sore backs. We fill our plates and wine glasses too. We count our blessings, say a prayer and dig in. Hard work, but like Christmas Day, it is so worth it.

photo by robjtak