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Redefining Ritual: Keeping the spirit alive in an evolving tradition

Interview Nefer Flores

Photos & Introduction Francesca Carpinelli

Lead Photo Hair, makeup & style: Eve White; Model: Danielle Chaves; Photo: Holly Feral

Web Feature sponsor SoCal Vegfest

Originally published in Driftwood Issue Two

Día de los Muertos, called Hanal Pixan in the Yucatan Peninsula—Maya for “Food of/for the Souls”—is a beautiful celebration of the dead. It is said that the dead visit their families every year on this date, so most households will set up an altar at home, inviting their deceased loved ones to join them for a day.

The end of October has always given me memories filled with color, how beautiful everything looked and how good everything smelled. Flowers, delicious food, and pictures and belongings of the souls that have passed would decorate altars at schools, homes, and offices all over Mexico.

I was born in Cancun, in a mixed-culture family; my dad was from Merida, Yucatan, and my mom was from Detroit, Michigan. I spent my younger years in Merida, where it is customary to celebrate Hanal Pixan. It took me some time to truly appreciate what Hanal Pixan really means, but now I understand that it is an opportunity to share a moment with someone who left—it is an opportunity to say thank you.

For me there is nothing better in life than family, love, and delicious food. Hanal Pixan sums it all for me. Food for the souls who have gone before us, food for the souls who remain, like a beautiful Mayan story says: You must remember that the ones who have left did not leave in vain.

On Día de los Muertos, Hanal Pixan, and World Vegan Day, we honor the souls of all the animals who have left this earth. We can invite all our family members to reflect and think about life. We can invite them to choose life. We invite them to go vegan.

World Vegan Day is celebrated on November 1, the same day as Día de los Muertos. Established in 1994 by Louise Wallis to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Vegan Society, the oldest nonprofit vegan/vegetarian organization in the world. Wallis chose this date because she liked the idea of this date coinciding with Samhain/Halloween and the Day of the Dead, traditional times for feasting and celebration. Both apt and auspicious.

Día de los Muertos is a celebration of death. It is believed that the dead have the opportunity to come to earth and visit one last time before they move on to the afterlife, so family members or friends of the deceased take on the task of making sure to provide all the necessary goods for their travels.

So, not only is the traditional altar meant to celebrate their loved ones but also to equip them for their long journey.

I had the pleasure to speak with vegan blogger Francesca Carpinelli about her experiences celebrating Día de los Muertos, or Hanal Pixan, to those in the Yucatan.

NF: You mentioned your mom is from Detroit and your dad is from Yucatan. Being exposed to both cultures gives you the opportunity to not only participate in the celebration, but also the ability to see it with outsider eyes. What prevails in you?

FC: I always feel a bit like an outsider when it comes to participating in Mexican traditional festivities. I’ve always been amazed by the way people live and experience traditions in the Yucatan Peninsula, and since I’ve always celebrated at home in a nontraditional way, Día de los Muertos is an ongoing, beautiful learning experience for me.

NF: Does the traditional celebration of Day of the Dead conflict with the way people celebrate it today because of pop culture, such as movies, and Halloween?

FC: In the past years, American pop culture has had an influence on the younger generations in Mexico. Having a Halloween party with your friends is now a “normal thing.” However, the Day of the Dead traditional festivities have not been modified due to this cultural coexistence. Celebrating Hanal Pixan is still a crucial part of family life and cultural heritage.

NF: While I was growing up in Mexico, I had the opportunity to participate in the creation of several altars, usually for people I didn’t personally know. For the most part, I didn’t get to experience the feelings that come with the celebration. The most emotional was the altar the whole school came together to make. It was for a student who had recently passed away in a car accident. The school brought the students together to make a classroom-size altar. It was not your typical seven-layer one; we made a 360-degree altar with the center of the classroom being the main focus. We covered the walls with her pictures, her school uniform, and her parents provided her favorite things, food, and clothes. Although I didn’t know her, it was a very touching experience.

What is one of your most meaningful experiences celebrating the holiday?

FC: When my mom set up an altar for my grandmother. Even though she did it in a nontraditional way, it captured the essence of the holiday. It made me come to terms with the fact that my grandmother was no longer with us but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t in our hearts.

She and I were very, very close, even though we only got to see each other a couple of weeks a year. It was hard on me growing up without her, and it was hard for her knowing that my life changed every day and she wasn’t here with me.

When we lost her, it was incredibly hard for all of us to understand. I knew she was in pain, but it pained me that I didn’t get enough time to talk about food, music, love, and family. I was named after her and I believe because of that we share a special bond that penetrates our souls. Every day I feel as if she were cooking with me, singing with me when I sing, and guiding me in life.

So watching my mom set up an altar for her mom was a moving moment. The altar wasn’t big or anything fancy, but it had her picture and a candle. It was enough for us to remember her beauty, her wisdom, and especially her love.

NF: Nowadays, what would we typically find on an altar?

FC: Food and photos are typical elements. My dad’s mother used to set up a small table with a nice tablecloth and put up a photo of her husband and her mother, and next to each photo she would put a plate of their favorite food that she cooked for them. I think we could eat the food the next day, but never on Hanal Pixan ‘cause the food was made specially for her loved ones.

Here in the Yucatan Peninsula, the elements of an altar are determined by the age of the soul that has passed. There are children’s altars and adult altars; children’s altars are full of color, toys, and food. The toys usually belonged to the soul who is being honored, so it is a special and sometimes difficult time for the family to see some of their loved ones’ belongings around the house.

Different from an adult’s altar, children’s altars use colorful candles, and some families choose a colorful fabric for the tablecloth instead of the typical white fabric used in adult altars.

Since Día de Muertos is a Catholic-inspired tradition, most altars will still have a big cross, traditionally made out of wood. Most altars have incense, believed to attract the souls to the altar so they can enjoy a pleasant meal. Salt and water are placed in jícaras to protect the visiting souls from harm and to represent the origin of life and death. Jícaras are vases made from a local pumpkin; the insides are removed and the remaining shell is set in the sun until it hardens.

NF: How do local people in Yucatan celebrate the holiday?

FC: Well, Hanal Pixan is a big deal. Schools have altar contests, offices set up communal altars, and families set up colorful altars at the cemetery. But I think what makes this celebration special in Yucatan is eating pib.

Pib is a special dish made exclusively on Día de los Muertos. It is a big tamale filled with meat or beans and covered with banana leaves. What makes pib special is that it's cooked in a pit that works as an oven. Actually, the word “pib” is Maya for “buried,” so it refers to the method of cooking the tamale. (It is actually different from a tamale because it's huge.) Because of the cooking method, it develops a crust that is incredibly delicious.

Most households buy it and eat it together, but in the smaller towns around the capital, the whole family is involved in cooking the pib. The boys dig the pit while the ladies prepare the tamale. Everybody puts in a bit to make it happen.

In the last couple of years, people have started making vegan pib by avoiding the use of lard and meat, and using coconut oil and beans or soy for the filling. For some, this comes as an insult to tradition, but for us who are making pib vegan, it’s a way to honor tradition and actively participate in it.

NF: Is believing in the supernatural essential for you to truly participate in the celebration?

FC: I don’t think so. To truly participate in the celebration you only need to want to remember and honor someone who has passed. I’m not a religious person and I have a hard time believing in the supernatural, but I like the idea of being able to do something for someone I love who is no longer with us.

NF: What connection is there between World Vegan Day and Día de Muertos?

FC: For me there is a strong connection. It’s an opportunity to honor all the animals that have passed because of injustice, and the best way to honor them is by inviting everyone we know to choose veganism. We can set up a candle for all the anonymous souls that have left, but we should also be active and inspire change.

As a vegan celebrating Day of the Dead and remembering your loved ones, what kind of offerings would you pick for them, to honor their own likings without conflicting with your own views?

Well, my grandmother was an extraordinary cook. Lately I’ve been working on vegan versions of her recipes and I think I’ve been successful. I almost feel like she’s cooking with me, it’s kind of weird. So this year I will cook spaghetti and vegan meatballs for her. I hope she enjoys them.

NF: To what degree are you allowed to express yourself in creating an interpretative altar without drifting away from tradition?

FC: I think the important part of a tradition is why you want to be part of it. A lot of traditions like Día de los Muertos have some elements that might not agree with a vegan way of living, or they might not even be sustainable. That’s why I think we should all have the liberty to celebrate in a way that is respectful to our planet, to our fellow earthlings, and to the tradition itself. In Yucatan there has been a lot of fuss made over the idea of making pib meatless, but I think it’s just a phase. People will understand that we need to find new ways to be part of the tradition.

NF: Do you think future generations, especially with all the outside influence, will continue to celebrate this holiday in the traditional manner, building altars and actually understanding the philosophy of it?

FC: Change is part of everything. This doesn’t mean that traditions will be lost; to me this means the way of celebrating might change little by little with time. I know the love we have for those who have passed will not disappear, so for me as long as there is love there will be someone wanting to remember, and that’s the philosophy behind Día de los Muertos.

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