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Friday, November 2, 2012

'Tis the Season

Feliz Dia de los Muertos! (Happy Day of the Dead!). In the culture I most identify (Mexican, but I’m multiethnic: Mexican, Costa Rican and Irish), Dia de los Muertos is a day (and sometimes string of days) where Mexicans (both in Mexico and the USA) honor their deceased loved ones by setting up an altar in their home (adorned with candles, offering of food and drinks, puppets, flowers, skulls, paper-maiche skeletons, and a variety of pictures), or, if close enough, visiting and decorating the resting places of their deceased loved ones. My family is spread far, so an altar works just fine. Last night, I played music to my departed family and friends. I talked to them and recalled stories of them. Basically, I had a party with them.

A typical at-home Dia de los Muertos altar.
To people who are not familiar with Dia de los Muertos, the thought of celebrating death may be considered morbid. But, not in my culture.

            Dia de los Muertos marks the beginning of a season of celebrations in my family. We have paid our respects and celebrated the dead on earth. As their spirits wander back to their resting places, we’ll begin to prepare for a number of things in the next few months.

            Traditionally, Mexicans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving…that is, until recently. Celebrating Thanksgiving is most popular for Mexicans living along the U.S./Mexico border, or “Americanized” Mexicans. My dad is an All-American man who grew up in New York and is in the Army…so we celebrated Thanksgiving. My poor madre, before marrying my dad she had no idea how to cook a Turkey or cook many of the traditional Thanksgiving sides dishes. That year, she said, the turkey skin was burnt to a crisp and the flesh was still bloody. My dad got take-out instead. Since then, Thanksgiving has vastly improved, with me taking over the dinner at 14 years old and cooking it every year since then. It will be slightly different this year, though, because I’m vegetarian and I’m staying in Prescott to celebrate Thanksgiving with my boyfriend’s family.

            December is where Mexicans really get down to business.

            In my family, this is tamale-making season! Every year, we gather at one families house and set up tables and chairs in a long assembly line. All of the family came equipped with their best recipes, plenty of food and drink to keep us working, and their designated items (some provided masa, some brought cornhusks, all brought their homemade fillings made the night before, and some brought steamer pots). If you were under the age of five, you were spared the work. Almost all the older siblings and adults were put to work on the tamales; mixing, mashing, spooning, wrapping, piling, making more of everything. Sometimes, if all of the adults were wrapped up in a good pace and didn’t need the help, they would send us children away to play…but that was rare and not to be counted on.
A pile of tamales (mine are bigger than these).

            I remember how much of a drag making tamales was as a child. The only thing that kept my butt planted in place was the threat of “Si no quieres ayudar, no los vas a comer” (If you don’t want to help, you won’t eat any). Because we don’t eat tamales outside of this season, you better belief I stayed and helped.

            As I got older, I became much more amused by the event. When my cousins and I were old enough to drinks and celebrate with the adults, tamale-making took on a whole new meaning! We sang along to Vicente Fernandez and Amanda Miguel. We danced around the kitchen. We ate delicious tacos. And, every year without fail, my tio Ricardo would make us try his latest tamale “masterpiece”. To his credit, the only one that never made it into the family recipe books was ground shrimp adobada tamale. I still shudder thinking about it.

            This whole event went on for at least two days, the time of which was determined by the eldest women. When they felt we had tamales for everyone to have a pile of eat, only then did the tamale-making stop.         

            It was long, but worth it. Taking the first bite of freshly made tamale is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world.

            Next in December is a holiday called Dia de La Virgen de Guadalupe, which is celebrated on December 12. In Mexico, this holiday is celebrated by the faithful making a pilgrimage (usually on their knees) to the Basilica to offer the Virgin gifts and thanks. Most Mexicans are Catholics and their most important figure is the Virgin Mary.
La Virgen de Guadalupe and Juan Diego (Find the story and read it...awesome!)

            In the States, this holiday is celebrated by going to a special mass and bringing the Virgin gifts, usually huge bouquets of roses. This is also a time when special prayer intentions are made.  Not being religiously affiliated myself, I offer a gift of flowers to the Virgin on behalf of all women, because we all suffer greatly because of our immense love for others.

            What comes next in December are Posada’s. Typically, this celebration starts December 16th and finishes December 24th. Posada means “lodging” and this event is meant to commemorate Joseph and Mary’s journey to find shelter. Each night, neighbors get together and make a “pilgrimage” to another neighbor’s house. They carry an altar of the Nativity and sing songs. Some children and adults dress as angels or shepherds. When they arrive at the house of the neighbor, both groups on each side of the door (inside and outside of the house) sing a call-and-response song, where the outside group is asking for shelter and the inside a group denies them. The group does some in, though, but not to celebrate finding shelter, but to pray a rosary. This continues every night until December 24th, when Joseph and Mary finally find shelter and baby Jesus is born. That night, everyone is left into the house to pray a rosary and celebrate the birth of Jesus Cristo. There are tamales, ponche, bunuelos, champurrado, and arroz y frijoles waiting. Everyone digs in and has fun.
La Posada, in human scale! In my neighborhood, we carry altars of the Navitity.

            The ending of the Posada goes right into celebrating Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). Traditionally, family, friends and neighbors goes to a midnight mass and then return home to open gifts. My family is a little different. We stay up all night celebrating, eating, playing games, etc. At midnight, everyone gathers and assembles their Christmas gifts in near little piles or rows. From there, everyone takes turns opening their presents. The next morning, on Christmas, the family usually heads over to mass.
Noche Buena where EVERY Mexican-Catholic stages a Nativity scene for all to see.

            Now we move into January.

            Of course, the New Year is rung in. On January 6th the Dia de los Santos Reyes is celebrated. In Mexico, this is the day most children receive their presents because it was the day the Jesus Christ received his gifts from the Three Kings. In my family, this is the day that we all gather (again, at someone’s house) to eat (of course) and slice La Rosca. La Rosca is a holiday sweet bread that is shaped and baked into an oval, and has 1 or more (depending on the size of the bread) baby figurines hidden inside. Before everyone leaves, la rosca is sliced and everyone eats their piece. Those who get the baby figurines must work together to host a party on Dia de la Candelaria on Feburary 2nd. I’ve gotten this figure multiple times.
La Rosca. Yum! Where are the figurines hidden? Hmmmm.

            Being in Prescott almost all of this last year (except for Thanksgiving 2011 and Student Directed Days earlier this month) has made me feel disconnected to these traditions. It also didn’t help that for this whole special season I lived in a tiny studio with a hotplate for my kitchen. Even if I lived in a place with roommates, I’m not sure how many of them would have jumped on board or tolerated my traditions.

            This year, moving into a new place (a house!) and changing my mindset has made me determined to celebrate this season the way I am accustomed to it. There will be tamales, and music, and champurrado, and bunuelos, and ponche, and a rosca! Living in Prescott makes it difficult to track down all I’ll need to make this possible. Luckily Phoenix is only about two hours away and I have a car! Because it is my last year at PC, I’m doing it big! I’m going to celebrate (and invite you to celebrate with me) all those traditions that make us unique during this season.

            Keep your eyes open for invites: tamales are coming soon!

Angelica R. Brady

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