“Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, is a tribute to the ancestors. It's about remembering and honoring them,” says Macario Ramirez, who co-owns Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery along with his wife, Chrissie. “We feel that on November 1 and 2, the heavens open and the spirits are allowed to come down to visit their family and friends on earth.”
It takes a little prompting, though, and that's why Ramirez is teaching a “Traditions and Personal Altars” class over four Saturdays in October, so that we can lay the bait, so to speak.
In his 90-minute class, Ramirez describes how to construct your own ofrenda – which is the centerpiece of this traditional Mexican celebration – being sure to include the elements of earth, wind, fire and water, as well as the favorite food or drink of the departed. “As the spirits come down from heaven, they come to the cemetery and then they visit you in your home.” He says his own father loved Coca-Cola, but that it had to be the formula produced in Mexico with real cane sugar. He's seen people put out tequila or mescal, while pan de muerto and mole also are popular. “The spirits hopefully sense the food and then they go to visit the food. People take these things seriously.”
It's an open class and there's no charge to attend, with the classroom space large enough for 30 or 40 visitors. He'll talk about the significance of the elements: how the iluminadores (candles) light the way to the cemetery and your home and how the smoke from incense takes a message up to the heavens. “You have a little container of salt and that's to ward off evil spirits,” says Ramirez. He explains the tradition of pan de muerto, a sweet bread in the shape of skulls, bones or figures in coffins, and how the festive papel picado (cut tissue paper) represents the wind that brings them down.
“My grandmother would say 'viento del norte,' the northerly winds are bringing the spirits and she would wait in front of the altar for them – arms outstretched – and welcome them to the home for their visit,” says Ramirez.
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White candles also are recommended, especially when dealing with the loss of a child. “In our country children die early in birth, so that's why there's a heavy emphasis on honoring children on November 1 and adults on November 2.
“These ofrenda offerings are done at the cemetery, at the home or at a public place. There's a ritual to this," says Ramirez. "In a cemetery, a lot of people won't notice a widow or widower will kneel in front, mumbling. They're talking to the spirits, which is very healthy. 'Jose has gone to work and Gloria is about to marry a gringo from the north.' I've heard conversations that are just incredible.”
Ramirez says that some local psychologists have even recommended the class to their patients. “It brings closure and healing to people. Once you've gone through that mourning period, it's good for you. It helps you think it through; talk about it.” The class includes demonstrations, handouts and a diagram for constructing your own altar.
“Traditions and Personal Altars” is held at 10 a.m. October 1, 8, 15 and 22 at Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery, 241 West 19th , open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, 713-880-2420. For more information, visit them on Facebook.