Aztec tradition lives on in annual honoring of the dead on the border


EL PASO – Every year on the first day of November, Zulema Vargas Gutierrez sets up an altar atop a small display cabinet in her Northeast El Paso living room to remember her deceased son and husband.

She places a black-and-white photo of her husband, Francisco, at the center. Next to him, she places a color photo of her son, Jaime, who is standing next to his twin brother, both of them in their baseball uniforms. She also adds a few meaningful items: a baseball, a bowl of Luck Charms – Jaime’s favorite cereal – and a red rose, symbolizing his love for working in the garden.

Francisco Gutierrez died 43 years ago of a heart attack at 49 and Jaime Gutierrez died in 2007 of cancer at the age of 51.

Every year at this time, Vargas Gutierrez prepares for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) by building an altar in her home to remember her loved ones. The yearly practice is a longstanding Mexican custom where the dead are believed to return to visit the living.

“The Day of the Dead is a sad but happy day in which I remember my husband and my son,” said Vargas. “I build the altar in my house so they can come to visit me and my family.”

The holiday is celebrated over two days, November 1 and 2. Families start building their altar on October 31, which is Halloween in the United States. November 1 is called Dia de Todos los Santos – All Saints Day. It is when the spirits of babies and young children are said to come visit the living. The next day, Nov. 2, is Dia de los Muertos, when older relatives and ancestors join in on the holiday.

Although the tradition originated in Mexico, it is now also a part of the Latino culture in the U.S., especially along the U.S. Mexico border.

Performer and lecturer Frank Verala, speaking at a recent workshop sponsored by the El Paso Museum of History, says that typical offerings for a traditional Mexican altar include pan de muerto, a sweet roll specifically made for Dia de los Muertos, calavera candy (sugar skulls), papel picado, perforated paper, cempazuchitl (yellow marigolds) and, most important, a photograph of the deceased.

Varelas says the tradition dates to the time of the Aztecs who honored their dead every ninth month of the Aztec calendar. The celebration lasted an entire month. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico the traditional Aztec celebration merged with the Christian holidays All Saints and All Souls day in early November.

“It has become such a special holiday because it is the one day out of the year where it is believed that our ancestors and family spirits come back to visit us,” said Verala.

Even today Mexican children do not attend school on either day, because it is a highly respected holiday in that culture.

“Many people don’t really have an idea of what Dia de los Muertos consists of. They see it as something scary or depressing, when in fact it is a beautiful holiday and (Mexicans) are the only ones to celebrate death.”

He said that Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in different ways in different parts of Mexico and also different regions of Latin America.

“I believe that here in the border we tend to interchange a lot of our holidays such as Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. People here tend to paint their faces and wear costumes representing la Catrina or la Calaca, but don’t necessarily know the background of the day,” Verala said.

Every year at this time, Vargas Gutierrez and her family honor Dia de los Muertos by hosting a small family reunion with her daughters in her living room to share memories of her son and her husband.

Her 51-year-old daughter Laura Gutierrez says they like to remember special moments with her deceased brother and father, for example games they played as children and shopping trips by their father to bring home chips and sweets.

“We like to talk about the happy times, before my father or my brother got sick,” Laura Gutierrez said.

“Each one of the siblings helps set up the altar by buying fresh flowers and bringing pan de dulce,” she said. Then she added: “but there’s not a day we don’t think about them, they’re always in our hearts.”




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