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Cempasúchil, alfeñiques and papel picado used to decorate an altar

Let’s start with the basics.

No, it’s not the “Mexican Halloween.”

If you haven’t heard of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), it is a day devoted to honor and celebrate those who died.

There is nothing scary, spooky, or frightening about this holiday. On the contrary, there’s color, food, rituals and, most of all, devotion.

Originating in the Aztec culture, it has morphed and been sprinkled with Catholicism. And you might say that the Catholic Church has adopted it as its own, becoming a fusion with the holiday celebrated on Nov. 1, the Day of Innocence (when children who have passed are honored) and Nov. 2, All Souls Day for all others.

While talk and the subject of death is frowned upon in Western culture, in Mexican culture it is seen in a different light: humorous, irreverent, part of everyday life.

Perhaps the Mexican author and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz summarized it best in his 1950’s book, The Labyrinth of Solitude

“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”

Día de los Muertos celebrations are particularly relevant in southern and central Mexico, and immigrants from there have brought it to this side of the border.

More and more events around this celebration are popping up everywhere. On Saturday, Oct. 27, Recreation Park in the City of San Fernando will present such events after a 5K run.

One is sure to see the altars to honor the dearly departed, featuring their photos and adorned with sugar skulls, pan de muerto (Mexican sweet bread), their favorite food and drink and other elements that marked their lives (alcohol and tobacco to name a few).

The construction of altars can take many forms and shapes, but it must contain four essential elements of nature: earth, wind, water and fire.

Earth may be represented by the clay bowls filled with fruits or corn. The wind is oftentimes represented by the papel picado (paper cut in artful shapes). Water is there to quench the thirst of the souls that visit after a long journey from the other side. And the fire may be symbolized by candles that guide the soul.

Salt, copal (incense) and cempazuchtl  flower (marigolds) should also be included to bring your loved ones back for a “visit.”

It is believed that on these days, Nov. 1 and 2, those who have died come back to spend the day with their living family.