With the pandemic shutting down a lot of Dià de los Muertos celebrations, the holiday becomes more about its cultural meaning and small acts of joy that you can find with a great meal and something warm to drink.
In the Catholic church, the two days after Halloween are All Saint’s and All Souls’ Day—back-to-back celebrations of those who have passed on—both revered and familial. But in Mexican-American communities, there’s Dià de los Muertos, a three-day celebration often running for a week which incorporates a trifecta of holidays.
From October 31 to November 2, Mexican American communities honor their ancestors in elaborate ceremonies, parades and public-private gatherings. A hybrid of indigeinous roots and Catholic influences, Dià de los Muertos merges Aztecan ancient ceremony of the Feast of the Dead, and the Caholic Church’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Over time, the festival has rooted itself in cities across the US with large Mexican populations to the point that it established commercial appeal. For good or for bad, around this time you can buy decorated skulls for trick-or-treat buckets alongside traditional scary plastic pumpkins at Target to Rite Aide.
Dià de los Muertos’ popularity shows how it is becoming as American as a street taco. Or even acknowledged as perhaps, pre-American. At the same time, the holiday displays the ways in which Latinx neighborhoods parallel their ritual with communities adjacent to them.
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Being raised Catholic and in Los Angeles with a mother who taught Spanish in a Black and Latinx high school, I grew up with burritos, churros and tacos alongside gumbo, boudin and praline.
When we couldn’t get a family member to bring cracklin’ or fried thick chunks of pig skin from my mother’s hometown in Louisiana, my father would substitute it with chicharrónes, a lighter fried pork skin. Often jalapeños substituted, or were even paired with Louisiana a hot sauce. We ate Mexican rice made with fresh chilli regularly, but made the traditional Creole dirty rice on holidays.
While there was Dià de los Muertos in Los Angeles, my mother spoke of the big festival in Louisiana that resembles in many ways, the Mexican tradition. My grandmother was from St. Martinville, a southwest town that has the second largest local celebration after Mardi Gras—All Saints and Soul’s Day. On those days, just like Dià de los Muertos, residents celebrate the ancestors with parades, cookouts, and most importantly, decorating the gravesites of those who passed on.
During the festival, burial grounds are cleaned then family members repaint tombstones white with limestone. The graves are adorned with the favorites of those who passed such as candy, liquor, Mardi Gras beads, baby dolls and cigars.
For food, a butcherie takes place, which is the community slaughtering of pork then distributing pieces of it. Most of the pork is smoked or preserved for the winter. Usually, this is a days-long process so the community event turned it into an autumn festival. Traditionally, people would meet up each evening at a host’s home in the community. It would be part hosting and part potluck. At these gatherings, singing and dancing with good food would amplify the revelry.
In asking Ark Republicans about what they enjoy for the celebration, my sister, Ayanna, who is an urban gardener offered up recipes she uses from her extensive green patch. Since our mother comes from a tradition often using one pot to make soups, stews and other delicacies, here is what she offered.
- Cubano omelette
- Cuban oregano, chives, and eggs.
- Fresh blended coffee with maple syrup to sweeten it.
In Louisiana, dinner is what they call lunch in Anglophone US. It is usually the heaviest or heartiest meal which traditionally was followed by a small break or siesta before going back to the work. Louisiana was a mostly agrarian region, so waking up early then taking a 2 or 3 hour break for dinner was normal. As an urban farmer, resting between laborious hours in the sun and doing demanding physical work requires a good meal and some food that sticks to you.
- Okra and chicken
- Local, pasture-raised chicken
- From the garden we use macaroni peppers, onions, and garlic
- Leftover okra and chicken
- Greens melody
- Mustards, collards, kale with some oregano, thyme, jalapeno peppers. Throw in the seasonings of your choice.
Dia de los Muertos Cocktails
I love the bubbly. It is my go to, so I can sip this all day.
- Blackberries in our cava or prosecco sparkling drink for a refreshing mimosa. You can squeeze fresh pomegranate juice in it for a zing. (our pomegranate tree has yet to bear fruit).
Winter food prep
Because we stop harvesting in the colder months, we preserve our crops by preparing them for future use then storing them in our deep freezer. I am learning the art of canning right now. We have dozens of herbs from lavender to lemongrass, so we pluck them and dry them.
Also, we stock up what we call “The Trinity” for future soups celery, onions, bell peppers
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For a warm drink, I love hot chocolate. Yes, I was the child who grew up on dried packets and marshmallows. As I got older and traveled the world tasting sumptuous gourmet chocolates, I always appreciated a decadent hot cocoa drink. Here’s my ode to Mexican hot chocolate with a Afro-Creole twist.
The roots of Mexican hot chocolate is from the Mayan culture, known for a thick and frothy chocolate drink called, xocolatl, in their indigenous language. Made from cocoa plants that grew plentiful in the region, along with the food staple, cornmeal and chilis, xocolatl was a water based beverage. Speed up to today, the introduction of bovine farming and milk by the Spanish, xocolatl became a Mestizo creation.
The key to a good Mexican hot chocolate is the spice. Ingredients: Mexican chocolate (or sweetened cacao nibs or cocoa powder), nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, sugar, pinch of cayenne and chili. Wanna get a little caliente, spike it with a shot of tequila. I prefer rum or bourbon. Eat it with churros, pan dulce, beignet or buñuelos.
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