Gone, but not forgotten. Día de los Muertos reflections of a Metro Detroiter in Mexico.

Photo by Sylvia Lomelí Montes. Mayté sitting with a bouquet of cempasuchil flowers — marigolds — play an important part as the aroma attracts spirits to the altar.

In the three decades I have been in Detroit, I have only been in Mexico twice for the Día de los Muertos, and once just after the holiday in 2020 when I visited Oaxaca, a region in the south of the country famous for its ornate festivities that get started on the night of October 31, just hours before the two-day holiday gets started. That year, the holiday season was unlike any other. The cemeteries — where hundreds of families typically gather to build altars in honor of their departed loved ones — were completely empty — closed because of the pandemic. It just didn’t feel like Day of the Dead. People paid respect to their loved ones either days before or after the actual holiday.

This year, I’m back in my hometown of Mapimí in the northern Mexican state of Durango and I feel blessed to be able to be here this time. My father died earlier this year after a battle with cancer. And so as I visited the cemetery this week, I had a sense of peace.

What an honor to be here.

My sister and I put out fresh flowers and water. The area was already cleaned, and as a family, we agreed on who was going to do what since not everyone could make it. Later we came back and added a candle for each grave, had a prayer, and enjoyed the beauty of the night. All around us, a lot of other people were doing the same. Some even added music. The collective celebration of what could be mourning is now transformed into a joyful moment. Who knew something so sad, collectively could become bearable, even celebratory?

Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is celebrated across Mexico and other parts of Central America. Celebrations vary from state to state, country to country. Across these different festivities, the principles remain the same; we welcome loved ones who have passed as they return to us. This gives us the opportunity to remember them with love and gratitude. It is our job to be at peace and accept death as an inevitable part of the cycle of life. We move forward by honoring them and at the same time, taking care of ourselves and the people that remain still in our lives.

Photo by Mayté Lomelí Penman. A group of children dressed up in traditional calavera attire during a Día de Muertos celebration in Mapimí, Durango.
Photo by Mayté Lomelí Penman. The papel picado on display in Torreón, a city about an hour away from Mapimí in the state of Coahuila.
Photo by Mayté Lomelí Penman. At the cemetery where family members have been cleaning the area and adding cempasuchil flowers to each grave site in time for Día de los Muertos.

I have celebrated the Day of the Dead all my life. Yet, my dad’s passing this year has transformed the tradition into something raw and profound. It does not feel the same. As a small child, I only paid respect to my great-grandmother but as years go by, the number of people we honor increases. This tradition is deep and both sad and healing.

I remember growing up on this beautiful, colorful, and pleasantly aromatic day— the flowers, the copal, the pan de muerto. The cempasuchil flowers — marigolds — play an important part as the aroma attracts spirits to the altar. The whole experience is magic. In order to facilitate the return of souls to earth in this beautiful tradition of honoring our deceased, these flowers must be scattered, papel picado must be placed on the altar, and food that the deceased enjoyed in life must be added. Candles trace the path they travel so that the souls do not get lost and are able to reach their destination.

Traditional altars vary from location to location, but most of them have four elements: water, fire, wind, and earth. Some also have several levels, indicating the dimensions of life. Other items equally important are added—the photographs of the deceased, salt, crosses, and other ornaments. Seeing their pictures on the altar brings memories, both loving and sad.

Photo by Sylvia Lomelí Montes. A closeup of a skull sculpture and cempasuchil flowers.
Photo by Mayté Lomelí Penman. Someone in full calavera regalia, part of the celebrations that took place for Día de los Muertos in Mapimí, Durango.
Photo by Mayté Lomelí Penman. Mayté posing with loved ones.

People visit the cemeteries, touch up the wood crosses, and tombstones and graves would be cleaned. The whole area will be made fresh and neat with fresh cempasúchil flowers and the deceased’s favorite music. In many homes, altars will also be a part of the tradition.

Setting an altar and visiting the cemetery is about honoring their lives, we know they are physically gone but closer to our hearts. Celebrating this day is not a mourning day, but a celebration. We recognize this as a human experience. This is an opportunity to accept death as part of the cycle of life. As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged millions of families across the Americas, many of us were denied the opportunity to collectively gather to commemorate Day of the Dead.

I am honored that I was able to pay proper respect to my father this year along with family. As we remember the deceased, we know they are gone but never forgotten. They are in our hearts forever.

Mayté Lomelí Penman is a language justice and community advocate who brings a tremendous network through a mix of education, community, and economic development. A native of Durango, Mexico, Mayté has lived in Michigan for more than 25 years.

Mayté Lomelí Penman

Author: Mayté Lomelí Penman

Mayté Lomelí Penman is a language justice and community advocate who brings a tremendous network through a mix of education, community, and economic development. A native of Durango, Mexico, Mayté has lived in Michigan for more than 25 years.

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