Every year in late October, Viviana Handlos’ home transforms into a place of honor, respect, and celebration for the dead. In the middle of the foyer sits a table adorned with skulls, photographs, dancing skeletons, tissue-paper flowers, and candles among other cherished mementos.
For three years now, the doe-eyed 5-year-old has created the elaborate three-tiered altar with her mother, Monica Mora-Handlos. She takes as much pride in placing Grandma Lucy’s camera and her favorite White Shoulders scent on the altar as she does placing fresh flowers on her grave.
“We celebrate Día de los Muertos,” Viviana exclaims. “On that day, we remember Grandma Lucy. We don’t want to forget her. She was an important part of our lives.”
Death is sometimes a subject American families try to bury. But Viviana embraces her family’s traditional custom of celebrating the lives of bygone family members.
Her parents have taught Viviana to realize that life and death are part of our shared human experience, and that acknowledging the beauty in death gives us a deeper appreciation for the living.
Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—gives Viviana a sense of deep-rooted cultural belonging as she honors her loved ones and Latino ancestors. But rather than dwell on her sorrow, Viviana is taught to celebrate life in the face of inevitable death.
Día de los Muertos is a 3,000-year-old Mexican ritual, with roots in Aztec culture and Catholic traditions. In the United States, observations start on Oct. 31 and continue through All Soul’s Day on Nov. 2. Unlike Halloween, which is more of a costume-inspired, candy-driven party, Día de los Muertos is about making meaningful actions.
In recent years, Day of the Dead celebrations have taken some regions of the country by storm. These beautiful, sometimes larger-than-life commemorations have inspired celebrations across the Southwest of the United States, while films such as Coco and countless bilingual children’s books have also highlighted this Latin American custom.
In fact, Viviana’s mom found a Día de los Muertos children’s book at her local library, which sparked the tradition for her family. About the same time, Viviana says, an Elena of Avalor episode titled “A Day to Remember” aired on the Disney Junior TV channel. Both were instrumental in the family deciding to create their first ofrenda (Spanish for “altar”).
“It definitely means a lot to share about Mom, but to also include Viv,” Mora-Handlos says. The kind of blow death has on a person’s heart hurts at any age, and Día de los Muertos offers Viviana’s mother an opportunity to soften the sorrow with the occasion for discussing death and making sure the youngster understands its place in natural life.
In Latino culture, how people say goodbye to and honor the dead matters as much as—if not more than—the death itself. People across Mexico clean relatives’ graves and decorate them with bright papel picado (colorful paper banners), flowers (typically marigolds), candles, and things the deceased loved in life (food, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco are common). In many Latin American nations, people stay overnight in the cemetery and hold a vigil at their loved one’s graves.
Creating poems and pictures is a form of healing that often allows the children to come to terms with death. In Viviana’s case, she’s come to memorialize Grandma Lucy in song. Every first of November—on the Day of the Dead—the Handlos family (including father David and little brother Gabriel, 2) visits the cemetery to clean relative’s graves and pay tribute to departed loved ones. It’s also the special time when Viv sings to her grandmother.
For as long as she can remember, Viviana says she’s tiptoed over gravestones to visit her Grandma Lucy, who died three years ago after a battle with cancer. Her grandmother passed just days before Viviana’s first birthday. But the stories of Grandma’s baking and the mariachi music “Amor Eterno” and “Sin Ti, Usted” that blare from her kitchen make her feel as though she is still with her.
As Viviana creates her altar in the foyer, she places little things on the tiers that were specific to Grandma: the things she liked to do (like snap photos) and the food she loved to bake (like cake and banana bread). Creating the altar gives time for the family to reflect and really remember her.
Incredible family stories unravel about deceased relatives when her parents talk about the family members in the photos on the ofrenda. Life is fleeting, but for a moment or so these little talks create the opportunity to really bring loved ones’ spirits back.
Although Día de los Muertos focuses on death and honoring those who have passed away, integrating a sense of humor and lightheartedness is essential to celebrating the holiday in its true fashion.
It’s not something dark and frightening, Viviana says. Día de los Muertos is largely about laughing in the face of death—as seen in the decorative skulls and well-dressed skeletons, or calaveras (“skulls”), which are often depicted dancing or playing music. The sort of joyous flavor you get with music and humor.
Consequently, death only wins when you’re filled with sorrow…or worse, you forget.
For more information about Day of the Dead in Omaha, El Museo Latino hosts a related museum exhibition in the fall. Visit elmuseolatino.org to learn more.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.