Dia de los Muertos

While miniature American versions of superheroes, pirates and princesses head home to sleep off sugar-induced comas, Latin Americans south of the border flood into graveyards with candles, skeletons and mariachis.

Instead of the spooks and frights of Halloween, millions throughout Latin America celebrate the Day of the Dead on Nov. 1 and 2, a commemoration of friends and family members who have died.

“It’s not a morbid celebration at all,” history professor Stephen Andes said as he described celebrating the Day of the Dead in Sonora, Mexico. “At its core, it’s a celebration for family to get together to make a link with loved ones – even after they’re gone.”

During the two-day holiday, families visit the graves of deceased loved ones to clean the tombstones and decorate the sites with bright flowers and candles.

Celebrants work throughout the night.

Celebrants work throughout the night.

Food contributes to a carnival-like atmosphere.

“There’s food vendors selling tamales and traditional candies like calaveras, or skulls made out of sugar,” Andes said.

Sugar skull candies range in intricacy.

Sugar skull candies range in intricacy.

Celebrants decorate the tombs and homemade altars with items that represent the deceased, Spanish professor and Costa Rican-native Lidia Byrd said.

“If they liked fruit, there’s fruit,” she said laughing. “If they liked tortillas, there are tortillas. If they liked mariachi, there are mariachis playing near the grave.”

Families also make pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, to eat at the gravesites, Byrd described. The sweet bread is flavored with anise seeds and decorated with sugar and bread pieces shaped like bones, which symbolize the dead.

Pan de muertos is traditionally served with coffee or hot chocolate.

Pan de muerto is traditionally served with coffee or hot chocolate.

The Day of the Dead’s emphasis on life is after death is a result of Mexican indigenous religions rather than a traditional part of Roman Catholicism.

“For us, when someone dies it is a continuation of the life,” Byrd said.

In an effort to obtain more Catholic converts, Spanish conquerors in the 1600s combined the Aztec celebration of the dead with the religious holidays of All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1, and All Soul’s day, Nov. 2.

The result, Andes said, is a holiday that is uniquely Latin American.

“I think you can see the Day of the Dead celebrates a lot more whimsical, lighthearted intimacy with death,” Andes said, contrasting the holiday to the American tradition of Halloween.

“Halloween is a completely different holiday. It’s all about being scary. They might be around the same time, but that’s not what Day of the Dead is about.”

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Impressions

By all accounts it should have been a good evening.

The margaritas were strong and the salsa, spicy. The birthday girl’s quesadilla oozed Oaxaca, while fajitas sizzled and popped on the iron skillet.

And we couldn’t wait to leave.

Nothing compares to the taste of poor service.

The comedy of errors began as soon as we walked through the door, where the hostess explained that our party of nine would have to wait between 20 to 30 minutes. Fair enough. We parked at the bar and inhaled chips and tequila.

Twenty minutes passed – then 30. We bobbed our heads to the ‘90s cover band and looked longingly at two empty tables that could seat our small army. They were reserved.

Forty minutes into our wait, Birthday Girl called a vote: eat outside or prolong our fasts. We shuffled into the wake of a Louisiana typhoon and pushed two wet tables together.

Our server approached with peace offerings of chips and salsa. As she turned to leave, one member of our party asked for salt.

“Salt? I think we’re out,” the server said in thick Eastern European accent that dared us to question her again.

She returned with a salt refiller.

“It’s all we have,” she growled before taking our orders.

We would have to make do.

We would have to make do.

Assaulted by mosquitos and a blanket of humidity, we perked up as our plates emerged from the kitchen. But instead of the usual warnings accompanied by sizzling entrees, the server pushed hot plates into our hands.

Startled and slightly singed, silence took over the table as we satiated our hunger.

Two members of the party, however, could only watch everyone enjoy the food. The server delivered the wrong order of tortillas.

A request to the manager brought the server back with the correct tortillas and a visibly stormy attitude. We all cringed in our seats when she joked(?) that we should finish soon.

Taking the hint, we asked for the checks. The server collected our credit cards, and we waited. And waited. We joked about waiting and then waited some more.

Slightly concerned that the server had returned to the homeland with our cards, I flagged down one of her coworkers. After explaining our dilemma and giving a brief physical description, recognition lit our savior’s eyes.

“Oh, her,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ll handle it.”

Uh oh. Within minutes she blustered out of the kitchen and threw the receipts at Salt Requestor, not even making an effort connect cards to owners.

We were eager to skip formalities, too.

Collecting our things, we ran out the door. The party was over.

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