Hatch Elementary Dia De Los Muertos altar

The ofrenda, or altar, in the Hatch Elementary School library contained many memories. Photo courtesy Jesus Ogarrio

Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a tradition rooted in several thousand years of history, but there’s no one way to honor the customs.

“It is a tradition and it is a very personal experience,” said Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente on the South Coast. “It’s a way to honor people that have passed in our lives. Every year we remember details of what they like to eat, what they like to drink, what they were like.”

Día de los Muertos originated in Mexico but is now celebrated around the world on the first and second days of November. It is a time to honor friends and family who have died and welcome their spirits back. To prepare, people create colorful ofrendas, or altars, in cemeteries or homes with papel picado, bright marigolds, decorated sugar skulls, and photos and remembrances of loved ones.

“The wonderful thing about sharing is that we see death from another point of view,” said Jesus Ogarrio, fourth-grade immersion teacher at Hatch Elementary School. “We are happy because they are coming back to spend some time with us.”

Because one might wake up hungry or thirsty traveling between the spirit world and our own, some families include their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the ofrenda.

Mancera sets up an altar in her home with dominoes, chess and books because that’s what her father liked. She also remembers when growing up in Mexico City that the cemeteries were a blanket of orange with all of the marigolds.

“The tradition itself has changed over the centuries with different influences,” said Mancera. “There are elements that you always see on an altar, but some have been added over time. The people who first celebrated the dead didn’t have the pan de muerto, but now we all put bread outside. There’s the tradition of flowers. They have become traditional and when you see them they have special meaning.

“Traditions change over time, but the important thing is that people get to honor and remember their loved ones with that spirit of happiness and belief that they are still among us and they come and visit,” she said.

The traditional customs have looked especially different in the last two years as group gatherings and celebrations haven’t been possible.

Puente usually invites the community to gather to learn about the history of Día de los Muertos and celebrate loved ones. It has hosted workshops to talk about the different ways people celebrate in different places and teach people to make pan de muerto and papel picado. This year that wasn’t possible.

Mancera remembers when Puente started organizing celebrations; there were a lot of people in Pescadero that were unable to return home to Mexico when a loved one died.

“Every time they lost someone, grieving the loss of their relative, but also grieving the fact that they couldn’t be there for them, and they couldn’t go to the services or say goodbye,” said Mancera. “It still happens today, so it was really important for us to provide a space where we could heal as a community.”

This year Puente worked with Pescadero Elementary School. Students brought photos or drawings of loved ones and decorated frames to put on the altar and learned about the traditions. Ogarrio has a similar tradition at Hatch Elementary School and creates an ofrenda for the school to contribute to. Hatch students also try traditional foods and visit the Half Moon Bay Library’s ofrenda, which was dedicated to children's book authors and illustrators who have died this year.

“I think it’s important for us to incorporate cultural awareness and cultural literacy and to honor the traditions and holidays of our entire student population,” said Kendra

Holland, president of the Hatch parent-teacher organization. “It’s great that there’s exposure and acknowledgment of all of these traditions.”

Emma Spaeth is a staff writer for the Half Moon Bay Review covering community, arts and sports. Emma grew up in Half Moon Bay before earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Oregon.

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