A day to remember

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By Joan Irene Krohn

El Dia de los Muertos (the day of the dead) is not scary.It’s not morbid and it’s not violent.Also, it’s not Halloween.Its purpose is simple: to remember with joy and love the lives of those who have passed into death. Perhaps it’s more like Memorial Day.

An offering, una ofrenda, is a way to remember in the heart and mind loved ones who are gone: fathers, mothers, brothers and even those ancestors we never met but whose lives gave us life, explains Martha Johnsen, the principal of the West Las Vegas Family Partnership School. Johnsen is also a teacher and avid collector of dia de los muertos memorabilia.

There are muchas cosas connected with this holiday: candles, copal (a tree resin), noise makers, flowers, food, photos of the deceased, and much more.

The ofrenda (sometimes called an altar) is filled with vivid colors, paper flags (papel picado), smells of flowers and fresh baked bread, ( pan de muerto), water, salt and much more.The ofrenda ends up looking like a festive table set for an important person or persons’ visit.Those important ones are the beloved deceased.Ofrendas are set up in homes or in cemeteries but the memories live in the hearts and minds of people who shared his/her life.

These sacred memories are celebrated at least once a year. Nov. 1 and 2 are the two days set aside for dia de los muertos in Mexico.Nov. 1 is for children who have died and Nov. 2 is for adults.Most Americans, if not of Hispanic descent, are not familiar with dia de los muertos.Americans of Hispanic descent, mainly Mexican, are usually very familiar with the custom.

Because these days are so close to Halloween, Oct. 31, the holidays can get mixed up.

But Miguel Angel, director of Casa de Cultura, and Johnsen both said that the two holidays are worlds apart. No one expects a real ghost to show up at the ofrenda.What does show up?Memories of loved ones. There are no children going “halloweening” or asking for candy.No “trick or treat.” No witches, goblins, spooks or other costumes. Dia de los muertos has lots of color but not much black. There are skeletons and the making of sugar skulls for this celebration, but the emphasis is on the acceptance of death as part of the cycle of life. Angel and Johnsen enjoy both holidays and want them to be part of the Las Vegas culture. But dia de los muertos has lost some of its meaning and importance.

We need to work to put new life into this important celebration.Its importance is similar to knowing your family tree or studying your family genealogy.It keeps the family connected. Young people need to know who their ancestors were and where they came from.

Most traditional cultures, says Angel, have these kinds of celebrations.They’re important because they teach children about their past and who their relatives were. Chinese culture, Japanese, American Indian, Polish and so many other cultures have special ways to celebrate their own personal histories and to remember those who came before.

Casa de Cultura invites those who want to learn to make ofrendas to commemorate el dia de los muertos to attend workshops by Martha Johnson.The workshop was Wednesday at the Family Partnership School behind West Las Vegas Administration Offices just off the plaza at 157 Moreno St.The second workshop is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 11, from 10 to noon at the Family Partnership building.These workshops are free of charge.

In Spanish there is a dicho about three kinds of death: the first death is when we take our last breath.The second death is when the body is buried or burned and can never be seen again.The last death is being forgotten.

El Dia de los Muertos is a celebration to remember loved ones who have died but are not forgotten.