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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, June 24

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Back in 1982, I had the opportunity to attend a week-long burial ceremonyamong the Zapotec in Oaxaca. During that week, I climbed pomegranate trees and ate its fruit, I witnessed a pig being slaughtered and served for dinner, I was offered mezcal by the locals and tried to stay awake with the adults long into the night as music played well into the next day. While there was some sadness and tears during that week, my experience there made me realize that Mexicans seem to view death with less fear and more acceptance than other cultures. Among the laughter, food and mezcal the man who died was remembered, mourned and, above all, celebrated. My memories from that week helped me learn to also view death as a part of life — an act which makes our circle complete.

The Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, embraces this ideology. With roots in Aztec beliefs and some doses of Catholicism, El Dia de Los Muertos isn't so much a time for mourning, as it is for remembering departed friends, family and "visiting" with them. During Dia de los Muertos, families decorate the graves of their loved ones with flowers and personal effects, but the majority construct temporary altars — or ofrendas — in their homes to honor the dead.

The belief is that on November 1, the spirits of departed loved ones come to visit their former homes and those they left behind for 24 hours. At that time, they are welcomed back with flowers, fruits, photos and favorite foods which are laid out for them on the altars as a sort of homecoming gift.

While my son is too young to understand death and what it means, I feel it is important for him embrace all of his cultures from an early age. So even though he is only a year and half old, we can celebrate our Mexican heritage together. For Dia de Los Muertos, we'll be constructing an ofrenda honoring his grandfathers and make some Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) together. He'll help pick out some oranges and other fruits at the store, he can put flowers in a basket, he can watch as I put together the altar; with the bread, he can dump flour in our mixing bowl and watch the bread as it rises. He will participate as much as he can.

If you feel inspired and want to create an altar, with the help of your children, here are some tips. To make your own altar, choose a table that has enough space for small boxes and books that will be piled on top of one another to construct a multi-tiered display. Cover the boxes and books with a table cloth and begin placing photos and personal items that belonged to your honoree (or remind you of them) on the altar. Add flowers (marigolds are the preferred flowers for altars, since the scent of the marigold is said to guide the spirits to their homes) and finally, lay out some of their favorite foods. In Mexico, elaborate dishes of mole and tamales are prepared for the altars, but you can use fruits, breads and simplier items.

For older children, keep in mind that death may be confusing or too heavy to touch on, so you might not want to construct an altar for people they knew. You can certainly construct an altar to a family pet or a famous person from history. For more ideas or to see actual altars, visit the Mexican Fine Arts Museum and view their Day of the Dead exhibit, "Dia de los Muertos: The Journey Home" which is on display now through December 11.

Not ready for an altar? How about some Bread of the Dead? Here is a simple recipe — remember, if you are cooking-challenged, any local panaderia (Mexican bakery) sells this aromatic anise and cinnamon bread.

Pan de Muerto - Bread of the Dead
1/2 cup of milk
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 unsalted butter
1/2 cup of water
5 cups of flour
2 packets of dry yeast
1 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of anise seed
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
4 eggs

Over a low flame, melt the butter and heat with milk and water till warm — but not boiling. In a bowl, mix 1 and 1/2 cups of flour, yeast, salt, anise and sugar. Add the butter, milk and water and beat until thoroughly combined. Next add the eggs and 1 more cup of flour. Keep adding more flour until you have a soft dough formed.

On a floured surface, knead the dough until smooth and pliable. Place your dough in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise about an hour or so, until it's twice as big. Now form the dough into small rounded loaves (as many as you can make — about the size of extra large muffins) and add two dough "cross bones" on top of the loaf. Let the loaves rest for an hour.

Place your bread on a baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes at 350°.

So you've made some bread and you've constructed an altar — now what? Besides the Mexican Fine Arts Museum's exhibit, there are also many activities going on in the city which include many workshops geared towards families and young children.

Chicago Children's Museum

Artist Ramon Marino will discuss Mexican culture and assist children, ages 4 and up, in creating various Mexican arts and crafts.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Free with museum admission

Mexican Fine Arts Museum

Learn to make tamales with the "Tamales: Food for the Soul" demonstration.
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Adults $15 / Children $5

Want to make your own sugar skulls? Sign up for the Sugar Skull Family Workshop.
Saturday, October 29, 2005
Adults $10 / Children $5

There will be sugar skull making demonstrations presented by the Mondragòn Family
Tuesday through Sunday, November 1-4, 2005

Kraft Family Day: Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead bread) and featuring the Kohl Museum Storybus. Plus, bilingual Story Telling at 11, 12 and 1pm, featuring the story "TheGingerbread Man."
Sunday, November 6

Museum of Contemporary Art

Family Day with the Mexican Fine Art Center Museum: Create and view art at both museums, join a scavenger hunt, listen to storytelling and see demonstrations at both museums. A shuttle bus will transport families to and from each museum.
Saturday, December 3, 2005

To learn more about Feliz Dia de Los Muertos, check out these books:
The Days of the Dead: Mexico's Festival of Communion With the Departed by John Greenleigh
Day of the Dead by Linda Lowery

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About the Author(s)

Alejandra Valera is a new mom and writer. If there's a baby- or kid-friendly place, product or event you think she should cover, email her at .

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