Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of the most un-American holidays. Just translating its true essence into English is more difficult than perfecting NAFTA. The main character in the book Thirteen Senses by Victor Villaseñor touches on one of the reasons for this translation problem as he tries to explain a miracle, or milagro, he has just experienced:
Finally, Freed Noon just said, "Stop talking to me in English, Sal. Hell, there's no way a man can talk about milagros and angels in English without sounding silly."
"Hey, I think you're right," said Salvador, and so he switched over to Spanish and the whole story instantly became much easier to believe and understand.
In English, we just aren't used to uttering the words "celebration" and "dead" in the same sentence. Yet these words take us to the very heart of the holiday.
"On November 1st and 2nd, it is believed that the spirits come down, and people do believe and feel that," says Macario Ramirez, from Casa Ramirez Folk Art Gallery. "Los espiritos came to visit their descendants. Psychologically they are present with the shoes, the food, the artifacts the deceased held dear."
Altars or ofrendas created in honor of one's ancestors are key to that visit. Ramirez's Día de los Muertos ofrendas have been featured in Americanos: Latino Life in the United States, edited by actor/activist Edward James Olmos. Ramirez also has appeared on CNN, in Peoplemagazine and in People en Español. He has earned that attention not because he can write a great press release but because his ofrendas possess the ability to bring back the dead.
"I sense the presence of my father with my ofrenda," he says. "When Día de los Muertos is observed at a grave site, you see people talking to a grave. This sounds like a monologue, but to them it is a dialogue. They fill them in on events gone by: 'Pepito is doing fine in school. Ramona has learned ballet. Last spring I planted new roses.' " He smiles as he talks about what we in English must reduce to an out-of-body experience. "The ritual involved connects us with the spirit of those we love."
At the same time, it's a party, a celebration of life, Ramirez adds. For obvious reasons, this holiday will not go gently into the realm of Cinco de Mayo, though at times it can take the form of full-blown pachanga (translate that into a super-fiesta). There is plenty of room for sacrilege during a holiday where folks giggle as they chomp on pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread, (okay, call it dead bread) or candy calavaras, little sugar skulls that can be made to resemble drunks, actors, politicians or your aunt.
Most of all the holiday is a celebration in the spirit of the spirits, meant to have our ancestors either rolling in their graves or dancing on them.