7 Day of the Dead Traditions to Start as a Family This Year
Credit the movie Coco for making the Mexican tradition Día de los Muertos mainstream, with papel picado and sugar-skull decorations seemingly everywhere these days. But even if you don’t build an elaborate ofrenda or light a single candle, you can still get into the spirit of this heartfelt holiday. In fact, for many Latino families, remembering the deceased is an everyday thing.
“We talk about our loved ones who are no longer with us all throughout the year,” says Stephanie Figueroa, a Salvadoran mom in Los Angeles. “I want my kids to understand where they came from and how they got here.”
It’s a sentiment that we can all relate to. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to keep the memory of grandparents and great-grandparents alive for children.
Reach Out to Heaven
“My mom would’ve been a wonderful grandmother,” says Soe Kabbabe, a Venezuelan mom in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, who was just 20 when her mamá passed away. “I don’t want my kids to miss out even though she’s not here.” Every night, Kabbabe and her son Aram, 6, talk to Abuelita Maritza in heaven when they say their bedtime prayers. They chat about everything under the sun. “I’m trying to raise spiritual kids who know there’s more to this world,” explains Kabbabe, also mom to a 1-year-old. “I tell them, ‘Abuelita is on your side in heaven and is always with you.’ ” Aram thinks of his grandmother as a guardian angel. They have a special connection, Kabbabe says. Her son even hopes to one day become a teacher, just like his abuelita.
Throw a Party
When Denisse Montalvan, of Gardena, California, started dating her husband, German, he would speak with pride about his father, Luis, who was killed in the Nicaraguan Civil War in 1979 after helping a friend escape his town. German never met his dad, but Montalvan got to know Luis as a heroic man through German’s stories. So every September she organizes a birthday party in his honor.
“My father-in-law’s role in the war was small but important,” says Montalvan, who is also Nicaraguan. “His history is a part of our family’s and now my 2-year-old daughter Nova’s. When she gets older, she’ll know all the details. But for now, we want to celebrate him.”
With a family recipe and Nova’s help, Montalvan bakes queque, a traditional Nicaraguan cake with orange zest and condensed milk, and writes Luis’s name in icing on the top. At the party, Nova has the honor of blowing out Luis’s birthday candle.
“It brings so much joy to all the aunties and uncles gathered to see Nova participating,” says Montalvan. “Even though she’s young, I want her to understand her past so that, eventually, she can choose how to live her present.”
Smell the Marigolds
Throughout the month of October, Stephanie Figueroa, of Los Angeles, sits at her dining table and makes dozens of paper flowers with help from her daughter, Makayla, 8, and niece, Natalia, 5. It’s a tradition passed down from her abuelita, Maria, who was famous for her artistic skills in the small town of Sonsonate, El Salvador. Every fall, the matriarch would transform orange, pink, and red tissue paper into layered marigolds used to decorate tombs. When she passed away in her 80s, the family continued the tradition as a way to share stories about GG, as the great-grandmother is known to the kids.
“By doing something that GG was known for, we’re able to keep her alive,” Figueroa says. “It helps us relive our history.” And no one is prouder of those roots than Makayla: “Her teachers tell me that she’s always bringing up her heritage at school,” says Figueroa.
Feed Their Spirit
Annette Malkin’s abuelo Juan had a particular morning ritual. A Cuban immigrant who moved to Miami in the 1960s, he’d wake up every day at six o’clock, don a sweat suit and sweatband—even in 80-degree weather—and drive to a strip mall to power walk in the parking lot. As he made his rounds, he’d feed the pigeons. In fact, he kept a 50-pound bag of birdseed in his trunk at all times. Whenever Malkin joined him on his walks on the weekends, they’d always make a last stop at a local bakery to buy Cuban pastries: A pastelito de carne for Abuelo and a pizza-flavored pastelito for Malkin.
Though Juan never got to meet Malkin’s daughter, Aria, 4, and son, Elijah, 2, the kids have gotten to know him via his beloved ritual. On weekends, Malkin picks up pastelitos for the whole family to enjoy. And whenever she gets the chance, she takes her little ones to the park to feed ducks. She may not carry birdseed in her trunk, but the memory still makes her laugh out loud.
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A single mom, Natalie Rios, of Brooklyn, always looked up to her abuela Alida as a trailblazer who didn’t get married until later in life and rebuilt her life in the United States after emigrating from the Dominican Republic in the 1970s. “She was a tough cookie,” Rios says of the matriarch, who passed away just a month shy of her 95th birthday. “Her resilience is something my daughters and I hold on to.”
In fact, whenever her oldest, Sofia, 5, needs encouragement, Rios shows the little girl photos and videos of Alida—she spent years taking them at family parties as a way of documenting Alida’s life. Hearing her voice and hearty laughter through these digital memories always lifts their spirits. “She is definitely someone who lives on within us,” Rios says.
Pass Down Stories
Silvia Martinez can still picture her abuelo Raul walking home after working at his tailor shop, in Guanajuato, Mexico. He’d sit on the patio with his guitar and just play and play.
It seems that her 15-year-old and 11-year-old sons, who play several instruments each, inherited that love for music. “Whenever we go to Mexico and they hear mariachi or rondalla music, I see my abuelo in their smiles and in the tapping of their feet,” Martinez says. The family’s Día de los Muertos altar, set on a table in their front yard in Los Angeles, even includes a miniature version of Abuelo’s guitar. Music is just one of the topics they cover as everyone sits by the ofrenda to tell stories.
“My husband talks about his dad, I talk about Abuelo. Sometimes one of us cries, but it’s important for the kids to see it’s okay to show emotion,” Martinez says. “I see how our Mexican culture comes to life inside my sons because of these traditions. I hope it stays in their hearts and that, one day, they’ll share stories with their kids too.”
Don't Forget the Pets!
Vanessa Barrios-DeGiacomo, a Mexican-American mom in Woodland Hills, California, shares how she honors her late dog, Kobe:
“My parents never discussed death with me, so I grew up fearing it. Then Coco came out, and I realized I could teach my sons, Anthony, 5, and Dominic, 2, to celebrate life instead. When our 8-year-old dog, Kobe, died last year, I processed it with the boys through Día de los Muertos. A week before the holiday, we bought marigolds. I explained how their color and scent would guide Kobe’s spirit back to us. We set up an altar in our living room with his photos, favorite foods, and a bowl of water. On the day itself, we blew bubbles outside, which was Kobe’s favorite pastime.”