MEXICO CITY – Norberta, 75, does not have much of an appetite for celebrations this year, although she has found the strength to build a Day of the Dead altar in honor of her deceased daughter.
Such tributes – festive occasions in which Mexicans welcome back the souls of their dearly departed to the world of the living with food, beverages and other offerings – commonly take place at cemeteries.
But with grave sites closed due to the pandemic, Norberta and millions of other Mexicans have no choice this year but to keep these reunions confined to their homes.
“I’m building an ofrenda (makeshift altar) for my daughter. Since she liked doing all of this, I also wanted to do the same,” the elderly woman told EFE with tears in her eyes and a faltering voice.
The three-tiered altar takes up much of the living room at her modest Mexico City home. Accompanying the photo of her daughter are orange cempasuchil flowers, bread, candles and brightly colored sugar skulls (calaveras). A message also reads, “Welcome Rosita.”
Rosa Iselda passed away on June 10 after a tooth infection spread to her brain. Her loss has been deeply felt, as she livened up the home with her presence and was the one who cheerfully prepared Day of the Dead and Christmas decorations every year.
In her sadness, Norberta initially decided she would not do anything special. But her other daughters pleaded with her and eventually convinced her to build an altar for Rosa.
“I feel like she’ll come back. I feel like she’ll arrive because when she left (to go to the doctor) she told me she wouldn’t be long,” the elderly woman said.
For the first time this year, people’s homes have become the primary focal point of the Day of the Dead celebrations. This is due to a ban on visits to cemeteries, where family members traditionally gather on the night of Nov. 2 to eat, drink, dance and, according to tradition, welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones.
Authorities took the step to close cemeteries to prevent new outbreaks of COVID-19, a disease that thus far is blamed for the deaths of 90,000 Mexicans.
One street away from Norberta’s home, Ricardo places cempasuchil petals between the photos of his deceased family members. It is traditionally believed that the intense orange color of these flowers guides souls during their visit to the world of the living.
“Now that you can’t go to the cemetery, I’m going to make them their food here. Now that it’s closed, we can’t do anything there,” Ricardo said next to the altar set up in the patio of his home.
Judging by the size of the ofrenda, Ricardo is expecting numerous visitors on Monday night.
They include his parents, who are represented by an old photo of their trip from their native Oaxaca to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; his brother; his mother-in-law; and his wife, who died last year from complications from diabetes.
Placed on a table are a range of foods and beverages, including plantains, oranges, coffee and beer, to make their visit worthwhile.
“It’s a nicer set-up” in Oaxaca, Ricardo said, adding that he did the best he could to make an acceptable ofrenda at home.
The go-to place in the Mexican capital for Day of the Dead altar decorations is Mercado de Jamaica, a public market that reflects Mexico’s peculiar relationship with death.
A celebration declared part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the colorful Day of the Dead festivities feature both a sense of sadness over the loss of a close loved one and joy over life still to be lived.
Among the items for sale at the market are flowers, sugar and chocolate skulls and “papel picado,” colorful sheets of tissue paper with elaborate designs evoking death cut into them.
The pandemic, however, has caused a big drop in sales this year.
“Yes, sales fell a lot, but we have to be here for our customers,” said Elisa, who added that the current situation is unlike anything she has experienced in 22 years as a papel picado vendor.
Occupying the stall next to hers is Felipe, who has spent seven years making papier-mache skeletons. This year, he has been forced to slash his prices by 40 percent and says his profits are minimal.
Even so, in true Mexican style, he is opting to laugh about his economic hardship rather than wallow in his misery.
“What we’re seeing is the Day of the Dead because this is dead,” Felipe joked.