Desiree J. Mendez died in a vehicle accident a year ago this past July. She was 23.
Her mother, Virginia Barbosa, describes her as a generous spirit who was dedicated to others and who could light up a room with her presence. Those who knew her could recognize her “funny, goofy laugh anywhere,” Barbosa says.
When Mendez died, she left a hole in the lives of her friends, but her passing affected no one more than her daughter, Layla-Rose, who was 6 at the time. Mendez was a young mom who had her child at 17, but persevered through high school and college. She planned on becoming a counselor for the homeless, especially for homeless children.
Barbosa has been taking care of her granddaughter, Layla-Rose, ever since.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Barbosa says of the grieving process. “Having my granddaughter kept my spirits up and helped me moving forward.”
Mendez is remembered every day in their household. But this coming Nov. 2, she will be remembered in a special way at the annual celebration of Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The Catholic Church prays for the dead in November, a month that begins with two major feast days: All Saints’ on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ on Nov. 2.
“Layla is excited about celebrating her mom,” Barbosa explains. “She’s missed, but she’s remembered. We are preparing for a celebration of her life.”
Father Chris Bazyouros, director of the Office of Religious Education at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, says Día de los Muertos is one of many ways that cultures have found to honor the dead.
“Now is the time when the season is moving to the sleep of winter, so our thoughts are turning to the waning hours of sunlight. It makes you think about the end of days and what lies ahead,” he says. It serves as a reminder that the faithful will not be on earth forever, he says, a message often absent in secular society.
“In Scripture we read in the Book of Tobit that he ‘performed many charitable deeds for [his] kindred,’ which included burying the dead,” he says, “To care for the dead is an act of mercy and charity. This celebration reminds us that we are called to care for those who have died as an ultimate act of respect for their life and to care for the family so that they are lifted up by the hope of the resurrection.”
John Estrada led his Aztec dance group in a celebration of life last year at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles. He describes the Day of the Dead as a way to pay respect to loved ones who have passed away.
“It’s not only a mournful connection to those who have passed, but a giving thanks for members of your family,” he says. “Dancing is our way of paying tribute to the creator for their existence.”
During the celebration last year, his group — named after the Aztec god of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli —was part of a celebration that included commemorative altars for loved ones, Mass and a procession. They performed the “Danza de los Huesos,” or “Dance of the Bones.”
“When we dance, it’s in the spirit of the Lord, and our Blessed Mother is with us,” he says, noting Día de los Muertos celebrations have often been secularized and stripped of their spirituality. Not so at Catholic Cemeteries, he says.
“It’s a special feast, you know?” Estrada says. “You believe that those who have passed away are still with us. It’s a very special day. All of our spiritual feelings are for our Lord, Jesus Christ, and our Blessed Mother.”
Day of the Dead
The roots of the Day of the Dead celebrations trace back to precolonial Mexico, according to Ernesto Vega, Spanish-language coordinator for adult faith formation in the Office of Religious Education.
“Before the Europeans arrived, through what would be called natural theology — the observation of things in nature — [the indigenous people] came to the understanding that there is only one God that would manifest in different expressions,” he explains. The deity had dimensions of female and male, spiritual and material and light and dark.
The indigenous had an understanding that the spiritual world and the material world are not separated. Those who are of the material world have flesh, while those who have moved to the spiritual realm no longer have flesh, or are fleshless — depicted as skeletons.
“Death is the step into a different kind of life,” Vega explains. “Death is also a discipline — you have to die to things that aren’t going to make you happy or to be a better person.”
Vega says the Catholic and indigenous traditions do not contradict each other, noting in particular the communion of saints, the resurrection of the dead and the Christian belief in the afterlife.
“We are celebrating the life of Christ, the living bread. We are celebrating that there is life after death,” Vega says. “Death is only a passage and we embrace it with festivity and flowers and party and food as a way of saying the dead are with us. We gather the beautiful memories to see what we can learn from them so that we can be better people.”
Participants will often paint their face or half of their face as skeletons. Flowers, particularly marigold, as well as seeds are used in decorations to represent life. Families will create altars, with levels representing heaven and earth, to help remember loved ones who have passed away. The altars vary, but will usually include a photograph of the deceased, along with some of their favorite food, drink and music.
In Mexico, families gather at the cemetery on the vigil, Nov. 1, and tidy and decorate gravesites. Some spend the night there, celebrating and praying the rosary, telling stories about the loved ones who have passed away. Saints are also remembered — Vega noted St. John Paul II and the recently canonized Mexican St. José Luis Sanchez Rios in particular.
After the time at the cemetery, families gather around home altars and continue praying and sharing about loved ones. The food and drink on the altars is consumed, including a sweet bread called “Pan de Muerto,” or “Bread of the Dead.”
Vega, who grew up in the Mexican state of Michuacán, says he would attend Mass at the cemetery with his parents and grandparents. They would bring flowers and paint the graves of his family members.
“At home, we would have the altar with flowers and pictures, food, seeds, apples, sometimes incense and candles,” he says. “At night we would pray the rosary for our beloved departed. ... Eventually we’re all going to be fleshless. We are going to be living in the house of God.”
Father Bazyouros stresses that our faith gives us hope in eternal life.
“Although death can be a painful and sometimes misunderstood part of human life, it is through the paschal mystery of Jesus that death finds its true meaning,” he says. “As we come to the celebration of All Souls’ Day, it is important to be reminded of that hope. It is also important that we have a better understanding of different cultural celebrations surrounding these days and to situate them in the light of our Catholic faith.”
A celebration of generations
Annabelle Baltierra, director of human resources for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and who dances in Estrada’s Mictlantecuhtli group, also grew up celebrating the Day of the Dead.
“It was not sorrowful nor scary. It was spiritual and reverent,” she explains. “It was a time when my mom would tell us stories about her parents who we never got to meet, her relatives and friends. My dad would tell us stories about his cousins and grandfather who died fighting in the Mexican Revolution.”
Baltierra continues the tradition by creating an altar each year with photographs of loved ones.
“I thank my father, who was an apprentice under Diego Rivera and taught us to love art and music,” she says. “I tell my mom I miss her and thank her for giving me the gift of dance and love of Mexico. I thank my sister, who despite her severe disabilities, lived life joyfully and with gusto. She taught me compassion and acceptance.”
The spirituality of the Day of the Dead is often lost in secular celebrations of it, Baltierra says. Catholic Cemeteries of Los Angeles is doing its part to preserve the genuine tradition, with celebrations Oct. 29 at Calvary Cemetery in East L.A. and Nov. 5 at Santa Clara Cemetery in Oxnard.
“It’s commemorating the lives of our loved ones and sharing what their lives were like, what they enjoyed,” according to José Gonzalez, who works in preplanning at Catholic Cemeteries in Santa Clara.
He and his family will be commemorating the lives of his parents this year. His mother, Antonia, a U.S. citizen who was raised in Mexico, died in August. His father, Miguel, from Guanajuato, passed away in 2000. His mother often visited his grave with flowers.
Gonzalez and his family are following the example of his parents, whom he described as faithful and hardworking. He hopes his children will continue living out the Catholic faith as well.
“God helped them,” he said of his parents. “They had God in their life and he kept them together.”
When Virginia Barbosa’s daughter first died last year, she would bring her granddaughter to the cemetery every Sunday. But then 6-year-old Layla-Rosa wanted to dig her mother out.
After that, they stopped visiting for a while. The family has been going through therapy.
“Nana, can we go see my mommy?” Layla-Rose eventually asked Barbosa. So they went back to the cemetery. Layla does drawings for her mother, Desiree, brings flowers and decorates. They even leave her a chorizo burrito — her favorite.
Desiree loved butterflies. When Layla-Rose sees butterflies — and they see them a lot — they believe it’s a sign that her mother is OK and in heaven. Barbosa encourages those who have lost loved ones to look for these signs and to find support in family and friends.
“Keep moving, keep going. Your loved ones will always be with you. Talk to your loved ones every day,” she says, adding that her daughter, “may be gone, but she’ll always be remembered.”