Last Saturday morning, on October 21st, Girl Scouts of all ages gathered at the High Desert Girl Scout office in Victorville for the Day of the Dead Cultural Celebration. Like all the other Scouts there, I had so much fun making beautiful decorative crafts and learning about the traditional Mexican holiday, which is both very touching, yet festive and joyous. The Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a Mexican and Mexican-American holiday when family and friends gather, pray for, and remember their loved ones who have passed away. The celebration occurs on November 1st and November 2nd, around the same time as Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day; however, the mood is about honoring the lives of the deceased instead of fearing them or their spirits.
When I first walked into the event area, there were beautiful altars set up on various tables throughout the area and many small paintings and art work on the walls depicting skeleton and sugar skull images. I had seen altars and art work like this in the movie, The Book of Life, and I was eager to learn so much more about the colorful and interesting traditions surrounding the festivities. I also noticed that there were several craft stations set up. Station One was the sugar skull craft table full of Calaveras, the colorful iced sugar skulls. There were Girl Scout helpers behind the table, rolling the dough which was made of salt, flour, and water. The dough was then imprinted with a skull mold. When these clay molded sugar skulls hardened a bit, we were able to paint them. My skull was glittery and had a nice smile and an upside down heart for a nose. The skull is the common symbol of the holiday and represents a death mask or Calacas. I learned that these sugar skulls date back to the 18th century Colonial Period and reflect the folk art style of happy smiles, colorful icing, and sparky and glittery adornments. The sugar skulls are usually inscribed with the names of the deceased (on the forehead of the skull) and are then eaten by a relative or friend.
I then went to my personal favorite, Station Two, which was the “Hanging Flower Skull Art” table. I made a colorful flower out of multicolored thin tissue papers and then attached it, with ribbons, in between two hanging skulls. I painted faces on the skulls (which are now hanging on our kitchen wall)! I also enjoyed Station Three, the Scratch Art table. There, we were given a skull-shaped stencil and a small square black board. After I scratched inside the stencil on the small board, a multihued skull was revealed!
All the crafts were lovely and interesting, including the flower ring which we made in Station Four. We made the ring in a similar way that we made the hanging flower skull. We cut colored tissue paper into circles, holding the paper in the center and then twisted until we made a flower. We secured the flower with pipe cleaners and then shaped the pipe cleaners into a ring and secured that end around the bottom of the flower and wore it on the finger of our choice! Then we moved onto Station Five which was the Painted Rock table. I selected a fairly large trapezoid-shaped grey rock and painted a skull on it. Station Six had a marshmallow skull project at its table. We stuck a stick on one end of a marshmallow and painted a skull on it. Simple but cute!
The other two stations were the most popular. Station Seven had a very talented artist from Wicked Designs doing some incredible face painting. That line was long and would most likely be a one hour wait, so I decided to go to Station Eight, where there were Day of the Dead themed coloring pages. After going through the stations, I went to one of the real highlights of the day, which was to hear Mrs. Rosa Yriarte, a Girl Scout troop leader from Barstow. She had been giving thought-provoking talks all day about the meaning and cultural background of The Day of the Dead celebration. She explained that one of the most important traditions is to set up an altar in memory of one’s deceased loved ones. The altar or offerings, always include items of vibrant colors representing the four elements of nature, water, wind, fire (candles or incense), and earth (flowers). The altar usually contains the photos of the departed ancestors and their favorite food including fruit, traditional Mexican dishes, and also drinks. For instance, there was a plate of Mexican rice and a chicken mole on one of the altars. The mole, as Mrs. Yriarte explained, is made with chilies, chocolate, and spices. There were also desserts made with pumpkin and brown sugar displayed in vividly colorful Mexican pottery bowls.
Ms. Yriarte also spoke to us about the history of the festival. She explained that the Day of the Dead rituals, celebrating the lives of dead ancestors, have been performed by the Mesoamerican civilizations for at least 3,000 years and can be traced back to the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations. It had been celebrated during the month of August, but when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Central America in the 15th century, they did not approve of what they considered “pagan” practices. They, therefore, moved the popular festival to the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic All Saints Day (the day after Halloween), and All Souls Day, on November 2nd. The Spanish custom of “Halloween” was, in turn, based on Samhain, an ancient Celtic celebration and feast for the dead.
Mrs. Yriarte explained that November 1st was the day when the Angelitos, the souls of children who have passed away, are believed to return and the adult spirits are believed to return on November 2nd of every year. Mrs. Yriarte was surrounded by beautifully decorated tables with candles, bright wild marigolds, and a pink egg bread with bone decorations on top. She explained that these were alters full of the favorite foods and items of the ones who had passed away. Also on the tables were the photos of the loved ones as well as little toys and candies. Mrs. Yriarte showed us two tiny clay figurines that she had close by her on the main table. She said that she always put these little figurines and toys on the altar in memory of her baby son who had passed away. She told us that he had lived for 3 hours and 51 minutes and though she missed him every second of every day, she loved to celebrate his sweet life every year with joy. I saw my mother crying when she shared that story with us and I felt very sad. I thought of my grandfather the moment he passed away and how my grandmother celebrated his life every year with a special ceremony. I realized that it took incredible strength for Mrs. Yriarte to share that part of her life with us but it showed very powerfully and so movingly how important and meaningful this celebration was to her and to her family. She showed us that the day, though one of remembering terribly painful losses, was also a time to joyously celebrate the irreplaceable lives which were and still are deeply loved.
As Mrs. Yriarte explained, “This is very personal to me. I have grown up with this celebration and it means so much to us. I remember my mother spending days setting up her alter, which is now full of memories of my grandmother and my son. It is her tradition and culture and it is the long-held tradition and culture of my entire family. I was born in Mexico and I am Mexican American. Dia de Muertos is a day of great comfort for us. It is very healing and very spiritual for us, as we remember the ones we loved and recall all the good things they did for us and all the precious memories.”
Mrs. Yriarte then pointed out all the other pretty and varied items that were displayed on the tables and altars throughout the room and the Spanish word for each. The Ofrenda were the many offerings to honor the dead. The bright yellow marigolds near her, or Cempazuchitl, were symbols of death but they are yellow like the sun and also represent life and hope. The Pan de Muerto is the bread of the dead. The Calaca are the whimsical skeleton figures that represent death. A few Girl Scouts brought little Calaca skeletons as swags. They decorated them beautifully with tiny dresses and detailed jewelry and I was so happy to receive one. Mrs. Yriarte explained that the most iconic skeleton is La Catrina. She was created by the Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the 1800’s. His satirical drawing of a skeleton wearing fancy clothes and a big hat was meant to make fun of the wealthy and to show how poor people lived and were treated in contrast.
Mrs. Yriarte also pointed out other items such as the Alfeniques, or the poems and songs written about the festival, and the multicolored egg shells, or Cascarones, which were filled with confetti and trimmed in glitter. She also showed us colorful paper cut in different designs of skulls, or Papel Picado, which is the art of Mexican paper cutting. The Copal, or the offerings of incense, were also on the altars. Mrs. Yriarte said that if we do not like incense, we could use candles instead. The incense and the candles are used to light the path for the visiting souls that have blessed our lives.
In many places in Mexico, families decorate the tombs and graves of their loved ones for a night vigil. The vigil at the graveyard lasts until dawn and includes music, food, and drinks and is described as a real “fiesta”. I really enjoyed my day of fiesta at the Girl Scout Day of the Dead event and would like to thank Ms, Fairy Mary for coordinating the day for us. There was also a “lottery” and my mom’s name was picked. She won four Girl Scout fanny bags which contained mini notepads, pencils, and a GSSGC G.I.R.L. button pin. We also enjoyed the tasty Mexican treats that the Anguiano’s catering service was making outside. The event was a fun and educational experience that was also very moving and emotional. I learned how the Mexican people and culture help support the spiritual journey of their loved ones, and that is a journey with special significance shared by many cultures of the world. Losing loved ones is truly excruciating but celebrating and remembering their lives is a true honor and blessing.