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Embracing Dia de los Muertos

Written by , published November 2, 2011

Altar set up by the family of Silvestra "Sally" Ferguson at the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin. Altar set up by the family of Silvestra "Sally" Ferguson at the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin.

Dia de los Muertos is nothing new. The ritual celebrated in Mexico and parts of the United States gets its roots from the Aztecs, and many – possibly yourself, included – have long had this as part of their own life experience. But even as a Rodriguez, it wasn’t something that my family participated in. I only recently started paying closer attention to the celebration, thanks in part to a friend who passionately shared the history of it with me and to the museums who seem to embrace it more and more by opening up space for traditional ofrendas (altar offerings). My recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley and many of its museums, featuring Dia de los Muertos exhibits, magnified that interest in me even more.

The Day of the Dead is based on the belief that the dead come to visit their loved ones from Oct. 31-Nov. 2. In recognition of this homecoming, families and friends set out altars of offerings –– at their gravesite or in homes ––that include a photo(s) of loved ones who have passed, along with items that represented that person and their hobbies, as well as their favorite foods, drinks and more. Toys and candy are typically placed for the children.

Along with the personal items, the altars include many universal Dia de los Muertos symbols including crosses/religious symbols, fruit, pan de muerto (breads often shaped like the skull and crossbones), marigolds (or Cempazúchitl), sugar skulls and candles to light the way for the dead.

Calacas, or skeleton figurines, are all over these Dia de los Muertos displays. They are often seen doing joyful things, as in life. The calacas represents death as an extension of life and not something to be feared.

Various Dia de los Muertos images created by children at the Children's Museum of Brownsville. Dia de los Muertos images created by children are currently on display at the Children's Museum of Brownsville.

Most notable among the calacas is La Catrina, the well-dressed skull figure, usually in her finest gown, hat and gloves. It was explained to me recently that La Catrina mocks a wealthy woman who did nothing to help the poor. The point is being made that no matter how wealthy or privileged we may be in life, at the core … and in death, we are all bones … all the same.

Calaveras are the skulls represented in the altars - most especially, the sugar skulls. The abundance of sugar made it the perfect medium for creating the folk art that represented the departed in colorful and positive ways.

I learned a lot about some of the meanings from my dear friend Cole Ynda who, in memory of her late brother David, wrote a beautiful poem incorporating the elements of Dia de los Muertos. She explained the symbolism in her poem, Querido.

My first - and only - sugar skull creation.My first - and only - sugar skull creation.

I didn’t know, before that, that there was a reason the marigolds were always the flower of choice. Aside from it being noted as sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead, Cole put it in words that brought it more to life for me, so to speak. She said the marigolds serve as a guide, much like the candles do, because “the dead can see the color and vibration of the flower.” In her poem she calls them “los colores de la tierra, de la vida” –– colors of the earth and of life. That just sounds so lovely to me.

A few years ago, I visited the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin during their Dia de los Muertos festivities. I joined a craft table with a bunch of children, but embraced the kid inside me and was determined to make my own sugar skull. The first sugar skull I ever decorated, I dedicated it to two “D”s – my dad, Benito Cruz Rodriguez and to David, Cole’s brother. I think I did an okay job. Well, the 5-year-old next to me started copying mine and you know what they say about imitation. :)

Maria Hurtado shows one of the many altars she designed for the Mission Historical Museum's Dia de los Muertos showcase currently on exhibit.Maria Hurtado shows one of the many altars she designed for Mission Historical Museum's Dia de los Muertos showcase this year.

The Spanish tried to squash the ritual, calling it sacrilege, but I’m beginning to see it for the beautiful, poetic gesture that it is. It’s not a mockery of death. It’s more about coming to terms with it and its marriage to the thing we call life. It’s about remembering and continuing to embrace our loved ones, even in death.


  • 5 cups of flour
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of anise seed
  • 2 packets of dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup of milk
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 4 eggs

Mix together the sugar, salt, anise, dry yeast and only 1½ cups of the flour.

In a small saucepan, heat the milk, water butter.

Add the liquid mixture to the dry mixture and beat well.

Blend in the eggs and another 1 ½ cups of flour and, once again, beat well.

Gradually mix in the remainder of the flour until you get a firm, non-sticky dough, and knead for about 10 minutes.

Let the dough rise to double it’s size (about an hour) in a greased bowl.

Reshape the dough, incorporating some bone shapes on top, then let it rise for another hour. You may also make smaller individual breads and/or try different shapes with the dough.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.

After baking, you may sprinkle it with confectioner's sugar and colored sugar.

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