This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.
Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.
Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.
Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.
In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html
I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.
Pan de Muerto
All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.
My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.
Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.
We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.