Kate, Outbound to Mexico

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November 5, 2017

Exchange is both daily life and also the special opportunities to celebrate the unique cultural traditions of our host countries. This past week, I have experienced one of México’s most famous holidays: Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 2!

My grade at school entered in a city-wide competition designing a unique ofrenda (offering or altar). I loved the opportunity to participate in such an essential and characteristic part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Ofrendas are not to worship the dead, but they are set up to honor the memories of loved ones who have gone before us. The art students and teacher designed a very unique and creative ofrenda inspired by traditional ones. Instead of the traditional tiers of an ofrenda covered with a tablecloth, we took big boxes and painted them with canvas-colored paint and arranged them in different levels. We also didn’t use typical skulls and skeletons, instead we very patiently hot-glued individual black beans, pinto beans and popcorn kernels onto the boxes to create the skeleton and flower patterns. The designs on the skull were also meticulously arranged and glued beans, and the sign was very carefully hand-drawn and painted, and then on the border we glued more layers of (you guessed it!) seeds! All of the beans were a unique way to tie the different elements of our ofrenda together, and I didn’t see a single other ofrenda in the Casa de Cultura (Culture House) that used beans like we did.

We then added the more traditional elements; on top of the boxes, we placed sugarcane, guayaba, mandarins, and candles. The orange and purple flowers in the ofrenda are cempasuchil (marigold) and terciopelo rojo (red cockscomb), very classical flowers used on the ofrendas. On the background, we used the typical papel picado (colorful tissue paper with cut-out shapes) and purple and orange tissue-paper flowers. On the ground, we laid down more layers of black and pinto beans, flowers, and candles, as well as hojaldras or pan de los muertos (a traditional bread for Día de los Muertos). Lastly, we placed photos and mementos of the former student of my school who passed away in an accident to whom we dedicated our ofrenda.

Helping with the ofrenda was a lot of fun, and I loved the camaraderie as we laughed, joked around, and constantly burned our fingertips together by accidentally touching the hot glue. As a very non-artsy person, I really liked that I could still contribute because after all, I can use a glue gun with the best of them! It was amazing to watch the vision of the art teacher come alive, students and teachers collaborate so closely, and our ofrenda come together piece by piece. It definitely was an experience that I will never forget.

On Sunday, I spent the day with my host dad’s extended family making hojaldras or pan de los muertos, a very traditional food for el Día de los Muertos. It is a type of circular semi-sweet bread with bone-shaped and tear-drop pieces on top to represent the circle of life and the tears of the living. We started with 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds) of flour, 72 eggs, 6 cans of condensed milk, and 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of butter as well as yeast, some sugar, and agua de azahar (orange blossom water) to make several batches. First, we took the flour and made a large ring and massaged the mountain of butter until it was very warm and workable. Then little by little we added the condensed milk as I mixed it with my hands with the butter. Next we mixed in the eggs and the egg yolks, the yeast, and the agua de azahar, routinely adding flour to thicken it up. Eventually, we incorporated all the flour into this massive ball of dough, so we started the very tiring and tedious, but ultimately rewarding kneading process. After kneading and kneading and kneading, we let the dough rest and rise for a few hours. After kneading, it was a lot of dough, but when we checked it a few hours later, it was like the dough had multiplied! We then measured out the dough and shaped the balls into traditional hojaldra shapes: circular rolls with bone-shaped pieces crossed on top, with a little ball in the very middle. We brushed some egg on top, sprinkled sugar and ajonjolí (sesame seeds), and then stuck them in the oven! I think we made over 70 hojaldras The smell of fresh baking bread quickly filled the kitchen, and I couldn’t wait to try my first hojaldra, especially after a day of working to make them. After my first bite as a carb addict, I have discovered that I love hojaldras, and I probably ate too many in the days that followed, but after all, I am only on exchange once! I was really grateful to my host family to be included in this family tradition and to learn how to make one of my favorite typical Mexican foods.

On the actual Día de los Muertos, November 2, I had the day off from school, so my host family and I ate out, and then we went to el Centro (the Center) of Puebla. We waited to enter la Casa de Cultura (Cultura House) where I could see some other ofrendas, and I showed my host family the ofrenda that my school had put up. I was absolutely amazed by the grandeur and creativity of the other ofrendas we saw (although I may be partially biased to ours!). There were so many people in the Zocalo (main square) dressed up as catrinas with the classical white base makeup and then black or other colored accents. We then stayed to watch a parade of giant skeletons that were at least 10 feet (3 meters) tall that people had made. One person would have a pole strapped to their back that bore the majority of the skeleton’s weight, and the 2 other people carried poles that moved the skeleton’s arms. And there were dozens and dozens of them in this parade!

I absolutely have loved celebrating Dia de los Muertos here in México, and I have fallen even more in love with this beautiful country, rich culture, and warm people. Thank you so much for reading, if you have any questions or comments, leave them in the comments or send me a private message, and I will do my best to reply. ¡Hasta luego!