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Finding My Identity Through Honoring Dia de Los Muertos

Our Community’s Day of the Dead Tradition

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Above image credit: Vicky Diaz-Camacho (left) poses with her grandfather and sister. (Contributed)

This year marks the third annual Dia de Los Muertos in Casa Diaz-Camacho. 

The first year I observed my lost loved ones was in 2019, the year my grandfather died. He was 86 years old. 

Loss had never before compelled me to reach for my heritage, but now Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is as much a part of my life as other holidays.

Although the tradition is ancient, the connection is newer for many of us with hyphenated identities. We toe the American and Latinx line — somos ni de aquí, ni de allá — from neither here nor there. We’re somewhere in between. 

So, for that reason I’ve become more intentional about seeking out community and events that provide a connecting point to reflect, engage and learn. 

Case in point: On Oct. 29, Ollama Coffee House hosted its first annual Dia de los Muertos festival. The official celebration runs from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. 

Ten-year-old Jordi makes handcrafted bracelets and sells them through her small business, with love, jordi.
Ten-year-old Jordi makes handcrafted bracelets and sells them through her small business, with love, jordi. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

Everything about that night at Ollama was the perfect way to kick off Dia de Los Muertos. Music blared in the background with a joy I only recall feeling back in El Paso, Texas, at the Sunday morning flea markets.  

Weaving through the vendors, I met 10-year-old Jordi, who posed willingly for a portrait of her face paint. Jordi – aka with love, jordi – makes bracelets. The young business owner says she’s inspired by her entrepreneur mom Nelly Serrano, who founded Para Mi. The bracelet on my wrist, one of her Dia de los Muertos specials, has a deep red rose surrounded by skull beads.

Then, I met Maria Murguia, who prepared tortas ahogadas de carnitas — basically drenched pork sandwiches. She dunked them in a (and I rarely admit this) spicy homemade salsa. La verdad, me enchile. 

Maria Murguia sold her homeade tortas ahogadas for $5 outside of Café Ollama's Dia de Los Muertos festival on Oct. 29.
Maria Murguia sold her homeade tortas ahogadas for $5 outside of Café Ollama’s Dia de Los Muertos festival on Oct. 29. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

With my lips burning and my heart full, I was at home. Sitting, eating in and enjoying the 60-degree weather outside of the quaint café, it was hard to miss the window dressing — marigolds, old photos of the cafe owners’ family and papel picado. 

The festival felt celebratory, as it was meant to be. 

This year, the pandemic also put into perspective just how meaningful our ancestors’ traditions can be when loss is so palpable and the roaring wave of grief feels overwhelming.

In this tradition, we confront death with joy and sadness operating in tandem. Actively.

For those who are just beginning to cultivate the tradition or who’ve learned this tradition from previous generations, Dia de los Muertos is a chance at reclaiming a heritage that’s been diluted by assimilation. Each altar, or ofrenda, is unique to the person and to the family interests. 

Get to know a few Kansas Citians through their ofrendas. 

Community Ofrendas

Deanna Muñoz, who proudly calls herself the “Midwest Chicana” (and who hosts a podcast-turned brand by the same name),  recently shared her ofrenda story:

“Dia de los Muertos was not a holiday my family celebrated when I was growing up,” Muñoz wrote on Facebook. “My grandparents did not continue the traditions as they settled in the U.S. But now, we come together as a family and remember our loved ones. We celebrate them.” 

Deanna Muñoz's ofrenda honors her family this year.
Deanna Muñoz’s ofrenda honors her family this year. (Contributed)

For Muñoz, this year has been particularly difficult having lost two people closest to her — her brother died from COVID-19 and her mother from a heart attack several days after. Since then, she’s thrown herself into activities that fill her cup, such as creating jewelry and surrounding herself with community. 

Alexis Lawless, who also moved from El Paso to Kansas City, emailed her ofrenda story: 

“On my ofrenda, I have pictures of my maternal grandparents, Peter’s grandmothers, and a picture of me when I was pregnant with our angel baby. I also have the ashes of two cats and our last dog (plus 2 photos of her) included. As far as personal items go, I’ve placed 2 of my grandmother’s watches on her frame, the collars from my cats, the bow my dog would wear, and a Santo hand. For offerings, I leave water and doggy treats out. To finish it out,  I have a dia de los muertos stuffed dog, a calavera that lights up, a frame to hold all the fur babies paw prints, a candle, and some faux marigolds.”

Alexis Lawless sent this picture of her ofrenda. (Contributed)
Alexis Lawless sent this picture of her ofrenda. (Contributed)

Life coach and Golden Bee founder Bri Hopkins shared details of building her ofrenda last year: 

Celia Ruíz Calderón shares who she’s honoring this year:

“This is my altar. It’s filled with family, friends and loved ones. One night is never enough with them, so I’ll always share them and their stories with others.”

Celia Ruiz Calderon’s ofrenda is a way keep telling the stories of her loved ones.
Celia Ruiz Calderon’s ofrenda is a way keep telling the stories of her loved ones. (Contributed)

Vania Soto, a local artist, shared a video of her personal ofrenda, which takes over the threshold of her kitchen entryway, and the one she created for the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art:

“I have it up all year long to celebrate my loved ones not only in my family but also in a community. I change the flowers as often as possible while you’re around and often leave the lights on at night. I’d like to think that where I come from has made me who I am and it makes me think about all the recipes of my grandmothers have passed on to me and will continue through me and after me.”

Vania Soto's ofrenda for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's 11th Annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration is on display through Nov. 15.
Vania Soto’s ofrenda for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s 11th Annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration is on display through Nov. 15. (Contributed)

Finally, my — Vicky Diaz-Camacho — ofrenda:

This year’s offerings include my grandpa’s favorite drink, coconut water along with coconut cookies and, later, a homemade batch of arroz con gandules — light on the garlic.

The author's ofrenda highlights her grandparents, her spouse's grandmother and other folks they've lost. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)
The author’s ofrenda highlights her grandparents, her spouse’s grandmother and other folks they’ve lost. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

Final Act

The act of preparing the ofrenda is therapeutic, mournful and joyful. It could be as simple as wandering through grocery store aisles to find your person’s favorite coconut macaroon and coconut water.

Or it could be cooking a meal from scratch, such as chopping up root vegetables like pumpkin, taro root and plantain to create a sancocho or Puerto Rican stew. My grandpa never had the chance to taste my sancocho. But he’d tell me on the phone how much he’d like a bowl, or two or three. 

When I moved to the Midwest, I searched high and low for recipes that would fill my new home with the familiar scents. The food would help connect me with the people it reminded me of, like my Puerto Rican grandpa. 

So on this Dia de Los Muertos night, I’ll make my Nani a meal and set it beside his photo, allow hot tears to roll down my cheeks and then laugh as I recall his catchphrases in his rumbling voice, signature roll of the “r” and adorable cackle. 

Food may have been his absolute favorite, but it was always enjoyed against the backdrop of music, which could be Irving Berlin, Ismael Rivera or El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. 

But a night with my hopeless romantic grandfather wouldn’t be complete without Rocio Durcal. Everywhere Nani went, he’d carry copies of his favorite album tucked away in his red, beat-up Mitsubishi Expo van and give them to friends and to strangers. 

So, I’ll leave you with this song. If you know this gut-wrenching song already, get ready to cry. Especially with these lyrics:

Como quisiera que tu vivieras / que tus ojitos jamas se hubieran cerrado nunca y estar mirándolos / Amor eterno e inolvidable” 

“I so wish you were still alive / that your eyes had never closed so I could keep gazing into them / eternal love is unforgettable”

Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.

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