Before Halloween, there was the Day of the Dead in parts of the United States.

October 31, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that occasionally I write about issues part of the American culture that sometimes pop up during a speech and can be useful to interpreters in the booth that are not familiar with U.S. history or traditions. Every year I write about Halloween because it is one tradition everyone follows in the United States not widely known or understood abroad. You can go back to this blog’s archives and read the articles I posted during October on previous years.

This time, I decided to talk about a very popular and unique celebration in Mexico, and among Hispanics in the American Southwest: “El Día de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead).

The Day of the Dead originated before the Europeans arrived to the Americas. It was motivated by the view native people had of death and those who had passed away. Many celebrations varied from town to town. I will focus on the Aztecs because they were the biggest empire in what we now know as Mexico and the southwestern part of the United States, and because observing this holiday was documented by the conquistadors in the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún (originally titled “La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España” _The Universal History of the Things of New Spain_) (Florentine Codex. De Sahagún, Bernardino. 1793. Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy).

Originally the Aztec Empire observed the Day of the Dead holiday during what is now the month of November. In its current, form it was included by UNESCO in the World Heritage List in 2008. It was a religious holiday dedicated to the god and goddess of the underworld (Mictlán): Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl.

When a person died, their soul had to go through several obstacles before it could reach eternal rest. Mictlán (the underworld), was created by the gods of creation (Xipetótec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcóatl, and Huitzilopochtli) and it was divided in nine regions according to the manner of death. The House of the Sun (Tonatiuh Ichan) was reserved for those warriors who died on battlefield. Women who died during childbirth would go to Cihuatlampa; and Cincalco, home of the god Tonacatecutli, was the final resting place for those who died as infants.

The death of an Aztec was announced with chants and tears by elderly women. Next, the body was enshrouded along with its personal belongings and it was symbolically fed the most exquisite dishes. After four days, the body was buried or cremated. At this time the soul started its journey. For four years on the anniversary of the demise, friends and family members would hold ceremonial rituals at the site of the burial to help its soul on its way to its final resting place.

When the Spaniards arrived to Mexico, the holiday was replaced by the Catholic All Saints’ Day, to honor those who died as infants (Día de Todos los Santos), and All Souls’ Day, to honor those who passed away as adults (Día de los Fieles Difuntos) observed on November 1 and 2 respectively.

According to tradition, the souls of those who died come back to visit their family, and their living relatives greet them with an offering, on an altar, where they place a portrait of the deceased. They burn incense or copal (from the Náhuatl word copalli, meaning incense) an aromatic tree resin from the copal used as incense by pre-Columbian people during religious ceremonies so the deceased relative can smell it and find the altar where the family awaits. They also put veladoras (candles) to represent fire and light. They also help the soul of the deceased by showing them where the offerings in their honor are. Water and the person’s favorite beverage in life are on the altar, with cempasúchil flowers, the twenty petal flower, sugar skulls (Aztecs used real human skulls during their empire) and a special sweet bread called Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) named this way because it complements the sugar skull, as this bread is the representation of the skeleton of the deceased. Sometimes, cigarettes, paper ornaments in festive colors, and festive, funny poems about the person who passed away (calaveritas literarias) are also part of the offering.

This tradition is popular in Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro (Michoacán) and San Andrés Mixquic, a former island in the middle of the now dry Lake Chalco, in southeastern Mexico City (Tláhuac Borough) where friends and family members go to the cemetery, clean the graves, and set up the offerings, including food and drinks, before they sit down and spend the night by the gravesite waiting for thee souls to come. During the night, family members do an “alumbrada”, the lighting of thousands of candles that make the cemetery glow. Although the festivities at these two cemeteries are now touristic attractions, seen by thousands who go to these towns from all over the world, this tradition can be seen in most Mexican homes and cemeteries, and in the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States where Mexicans and other Latin American groups observe the traditional offerings, and religious rituals.

In the 21st century, many people have combined the Day of the Dead holiday with Halloween. It is common to see families participating in both traditions in both, Mexico and the United States.

Next time you are interpreting, and a speaker refers to the Day of the Dead, or somebody asks you if it is the same as Halloween, you can now explain what it is, and you can tell them the difference between them. Because the Day of the Dead is observed in many countries throughout the world, I now invite you to share with us the traditions and festivities linked to this season in your country of origin.

Halloween’s traditional foods around the world.

October 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Dear friends and colleagues:

Every year, Halloween is celebrated in more countries around the world and the interpreters’ booth is no exception. During the last week of October our conversations between assignments turn to traditions from our different countries, and many include food. I have been fortunate to try many wonderful dishes served during this season in different corners of our planet, and I thank my many friends, colleagues, and even clients who have contributed to my cultural-culinary education. This is a list of some of the most popular, and tastier Halloween foods, that came from other nations and traditions to the United States:

Pan de muerto (Mexico).  Traditionally baked in the days leading to the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), ‘bread of the dead’ is a soft, sweet bread roll. It’s sometimes decorated with bone-shaped dough on top and is eaten in Mexican homes and next to a loved one’s grave to celebrate their memory. Depending on the region, it can also be flavored with orange-flower water, anise seeds or other ingredients.

Pão-por-Deus (Portugal).  Pão-de-Deus (‘bread of God’) or Soul Cake is a small, round treat. People usually eat it on All Saints’ Day (Dia de Todos-os-Santos) on 1 November. The ingredients are: raisins, currants and spices such as ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. In Portugal, people give pão-de-Deus to children and the poor, who go from door-to-door singing and saying prayers for the dead. Soul cakes are also shared in other countries. Some say this practice might be the origin of trick-or-treating.

Dolci dei morti (Italy).  Often called fave dei morti (‘beans of the dead’), Italian families eat these little chewy biscuits on All Souls’ Day (Commemorazione dei defunti) on 2 November. The ingredients: Ground almonds, pine nuts, cinnamon and lemon zest.

Huesos de santo (Spain).  Long, white, tube-shaped ‘saint’s bones’ are made from marzipan (an almond paste). Spanish people eat them around All Saints’ Day or Día de Todos los Santos. Expect various fillings and plenty of syrup covering them.

Candy apples (United States) / Toffee apples (United Kingdom).  Although store packaged candy has taken over in America, perhaps the most well-known traditional Halloween snack is the candy apple (in the US) or toffee apple (in the UK). The apples have a sugar syrup coating, sometimes with an extra layer or nuts or other sweet decorations.

Guagua de pan (Ecuador).  These “bread babies” are sweet rolls molded and decorated to look like small children. They are part of the Day of the Dead tradition, often made of wheat and sometimes filled with sweet jelly. They may be exchanged as gifts between families and friends or used ceremonially.

Soul cakes (England).  These sweet, round cakes were traditionally given out in England and Ireland on All Saints Day or All Souls’ Day during the Middle Ages to those who went door-to-door saying prayers for the dead in what may be the forerunner to today’s trick-or-treating. They can be made with raisins and currents and aromatic spices like allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.

Barm Brack (Ireland). On All Hallows’ Eve, you might enjoy some freshly baked barm brack. It is also called Bairín Breac, Barmbrack or often shortened to brack, is a yeasted bread with added sultanas and raisins. Usually sold in flattened rounds, it is often served toasted with butter along with a cup of tea in the afternoon. The dough is sweeter than sandwich bread, but not as rich as cake. The sultanas and raisins add flavor and texture to the final product. The Halloween Brack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolize going into the priesthood or to the Nuns, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day. Commercially produced barmbracks for the Halloween market still include a toy ring.

Colcannon (Ireland).  It is traditionally made from mashed potatoes and kale (or cabbage), with milk, butter, salt and pepper. It can contain other ingredients such as scallions, leeks, onions and chives. There are many regional variations of this dish. It is often eaten with boiled ham or bacon. An Irish Halloween tradition is to serve colcannon with a ring and a thimble hidden in the dish. Prizes of small coins such as threepenny or sixpenny bits were also concealed inside the dish.

Fiambre (Guatemala).  It is a Guatemalan dish prepared once a year on November 1st for the Dia de los Santos or All Saints Day, a celebration that takes place one day before the Dia de los Muertos. Each family has their own recipe for fiambre which is usually passed on from generation to generation. There are different kinds: white, red and divoriciado in which all the ingredients are left separated and each person picks what they want. Fiambre must be prepared at least one day before serving and marinated in sauce blend of vinegar and other ingredients called the caldillo. Many people add fish and even shrimp. The day you wish to serve the fiambre, place a lettuce leaf on a plate, arrange a layer of the veggie mixture and then add a layer of the meats and cheeses. Repeat at least once and decorate with pimientos, sliced cheese, asparagus, baby corn, radishes, olives, and boiled eggs. Serve chilled.

Please share your traditional food for Halloween, All Saints Day, or Day of the Dead, and I hope you enjoy your family recipe, celebrate your cultural heritage, and honor those who are no longer with you. Happy Halloween!

Legends and stories for the season.

October 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is Halloween time in the United States and many other places. Whether a native tradition, or an imported commercial scam, the fact is that Halloween is now a part of many lives.  In past years, I have used this space to talk about the history of Halloween, horror movies, and even monsters and ghouls.  This time I leave to others the task of looking for the links between Halloween and the Day of the Death, and I will not even bother to refute those who are going around saying that the Mexican ceremonies from Michoacán state have their roots in Aztec culture when the Aztecs were not even from that part of the country.  This year I decided to share with you five of my favorite ghost stories and spooky legends from the Spanish speaking world. There are plenty more, including many stories from the rest of the world that I have also made my favorites and I will probably share in the years to come, but for now, please let me tell you the following stories and legends, so go ahead, dim the lights, get under the blanket, and prepare yourselves to be spooked:

Ánimas Mountain (El Monte de las Ánimas. Spain)

The story tells us that a long time ago, during the Arab occupation of Spain, the King of Castile asked the Knights Templar to come to Soria, a village in his kingdom and help him defend the city. Unfortunately, this made the local aristocrats angry as they thought that they were brave and skilled enough to defend the kingdom. The situation got worse because the Knight Templars controlled Ánimas Mountain, a place reach with game and a hunters’ paradise. As a result, the noble Castilians had to find their food somewhere else. They did not succeed and lived a life of austerity while the knights were hunting and enjoying the abundance of the mountain. Soon, both groups met in fierce battle that left Ánimas Mountain full of corpses that were eaten by the wolves. The king intervened and banned them all from going back to the mountain turning it into a desolated sight with a decaying Knights Templar chapel.  It is said that ever since, on the eve of the Day of the Dead, the chapel’s bell can be heard, and the souls of the warriors come back to the mountain wearing their torn battle suits and leaving their grim footprints behind. For many years people were cautioned not to go to the mountain on the Day of the Dead’s eve.

Then, many years later, Alonso, a young aristocrat from Soria, who was in love with Beatriz, a beautiful young woman who was visiting the village, and staying at the Count of Alcudiel’s palace, announced that she was going to leave the village and live in France. Alonso, devastated, confessed his love and told her of his fear of losing her forever. To this confession, Beatriz replied that in her kingdom there was a tradition where the gentleman would give the lady a garment or a personal item to pledge his love. Immediately, Alonso gave her the brooch that held the feather to his cap, and asked her what she was going to give him in return. She told him that she would pledge her blue ribbon. She looked for it, and realized that she had lost in on the mountain earlier that day, so she asked him to go to Ánimas Mountain and retrieve it.  Alonso admitted that he was afraid to go to the mountain that night, but she did not change her mind. Finally full of fear, Alonso got on his horse and off he went in search of the blue ribbon.

As the night got darker, Beatriz heard noises, a bell, and horrible screams coming from the mountain until she finally fell asleep. The following morning she woke up to the screams of nobles and commoners alike. They were yelling that young Alonso had died on the mountain the previous night. She got out of bed to go outside, and that was the moment when she saw a torn bloody blue ribbon on her bed. When the servants reached her chambers to tell her of Alonso’s death, they found Beatriz dead; her face had with a horrible expression: She had been scared to death!

From that day on, the legend tells that on every Day of the Dead’s eve, the skeletons of many warriors can be seen fighting all over the mountain, and if you pay special attention, you can see the figure of a pale barefooted bloody woman yelling and screeching around Alonso’s grave.

The House of Don Juan Manuel (La casa de don Juan Manuel. Mexico)

There was a house in 16th Century Mexico City, the colonial capital of New Spain. It’s address: 94 Uruguay Street. It was the home of Don Juan Manuel de Solórzano, a wealthy man who was married to a beautiful woman who happened to be much younger than him. Don Juan Manuel was very jealous and he firmly believed that his wife was cheating on him. To find out who was her lover, he invoked the devil and made a deal: Don Juan Manuel gifted his soul to the devil in exchange for the name of his wife’s lover. Once the deal was sealed with Satan, Don Juan Manuel learned that his wife had been loyal to him all along, but it was too late.  The house still exists in Mexico City and it is presently used as an events ballroom. It is said by many that at night you can see a man dressed in 16th Century fashion who paces in front of the main entrance and approaches those who go by the house and asks them the same question: “What time is it?” and when the answer happens to be: “eleven o’clock”, Don Juan Manuel just answers back: “How fortunate is the man who knows the time of his death”.

La Tunda (Colombia)

Do not confuse the name with the Spanish word for a beating. It has nothing to do with it. It is said that for centuries, a horrific creature has inhabited the forests of Colombia’s Pacific coast. This monster has an insatiable appetite for human flesh and it prefers small children. Hunters and their families can be tricked by this creature at night when it takes the shape of a beautiful woman to trap men, and imitates the voice of a child’s mother to lure them into the forest where it holds them prisoners in a cave until it eats them one by one. The legend says that in order to keep them from running away, the creature feeds them seafood with special powers that paralyze the body leaving the victims totally helpless.  Many say that even now, especially in the Chocó region of Colombia, you can hear this motherly voice calling for its victims at night.

The Legend of Caá-porá (Paraguay)

There is a giant with a huge head who lives in the Guaraní Mountains of Paraguay. This huge being can only be seen in the most inaccessible parts of the mountains, but those who have encountered it, claim that he smokes a macabre pipe made of a human skull. Caá-porá will not harm those who go to the mountains to hunt for their own food, sometimes he even guides their dogs to the prey. However, this giant is ruthless with hunters who go to the mountains for the sole purpose of hurting the animals. Those hunters will face Caá-porá who will devour the animals before the hunters can get to them, spoiling their hunting trip. On other occasions, this big-headed giant can confuse the dogs so they cannot find any game, and kill the hunters to eat them.  It is said that those who have escaped the giant and made it back to civilization, come back under a spell and are never the same. Now you know, so the next time you go to the Guaraní Mountains and run into a hunter who may look bewitched, dozing or sleepy, you will have met a victim who escaped from Caá-porá.

Súpay (Argentina)

Also known as Zúpay, is a devil known since the days of the Incas. Súpay lives in the northern and central regions of Argentina in an underground cave named Salamanca. His home was originally called Supaihuasin (hell in Quichua).  This devil dresses all in black with a broad hat, gold and silver ornaments, spurs, a dagger, and a guitar. On Tuesday and Friday nights, it rides its horse until it finds some unsuspecting travelers. He asks them to dinner, and after hours of food and drinking, and once Súpay has entertained its guests with his guitar, he proposes a deal to his victims: their souls in exchange for temporary fortune and reaches.  Súpay followers visit his underground cave to learn his black magic and other means to hurt people.

I did my part to put you on the Halloween mood, now I ask you to please share with us other chilling legends or stories from your countries.

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