Querencia. Rich with cultural and emotional connotations, the word is variously translated in Spanish-English dictionaries as fondness, homing instinct, homeland, haunt, and homesickness. But it means something more than any one English word expresses. Muertos y Marigolds volunteer organizer and altar artist Sofia Martinez describes querencia as a place that makes you who you are. Sofia’s helping me understand the theme of this year’s South Valley Día de los Muertos Celebration and Marigold Parade: “Sheep don’t vote, feed the Chupacabra. Reclamando nuestra querencia!” Reclaiming our querencia.
The celebration of Day of the Dead began in this country back in the ’70s as a reclamation of querencia as cultural heritage in the midst of the Chicano Movement—a 1960s civil rights movement encompassing voting, political and land rights, along with cultural awareness that inspired literary and visual creations. Most Chicanos, Nuevo Mexicanos, and American Latinos at that time had grown up Catholic, observing not Día de los Muertos but All Soul’s Day. According to Regina Marchi, a historian of religion with expertise in ritual studies, the intentional integration of Day of the Dead reflects the efforts of Chicano Movement activists “to reaffirm and celebrate the contributions and achievements of the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas.”
There’s always been a political aspect to Día de los Muertos here in the US, and this year’s Muertos y Marigolds theme evokes its cultural-political context. As popular symbolism like sugar skulls and papier-mâché calaveras (skulls) suggests, however, the heart of Día de los Muertos is not cultural-political identity—though this has become a central component of the celebration. Even the skeletal iconography has political roots in Mexico, Sofia says, and the US celebration is mostly a “cultural-artistic activity” today. Fundamentally speaking, the heart of Día de los Muertos is life, death and remembrance.
While this core of significance resonates with people from many backgrounds, Day of the Dead approaches these universal human experiences from a uniquely Latin American perspective. “In Mexico, it’s really about looking at death in a very different way. It’s not about being afraid of death,” Sofia explains. “When the colonizers first came to this country, they were evolving ideas about hell and heaven and purgatory, and death was a scary thing. Whereas in this part of the world, Indigenous people saw death as a passageway into life.”
Día de los Muertos maintains a delicate tension between absence and presence. “Indigenous peoples,” Marchi writes, “maintained the belief that family spirits visited earth at this time to partake of special foods and other oblations provided in their honor.” Ancestors and loved ones who are absent in death can simultaneously be present in the ofrendas (offerings) and altars prepared for the celebration of this annual visit. They are also present in the process of making these gifts and memorials with thoughtful intention.
When you prepare an altar for an individual, Sofia says, “You want to put out some of their favorite foods. There’s always food. A glass of water because they’ll be thirsty, but also water is one of the elements of life. There’s always things that represent water, air, fire and earth. You know, essences.” Sofia’s altar-making workshops are an important part of the Muertos y Marigolds festivities leading up to Day of the Dead. She approaches altars as universal objects that are both highly symbolic and deeply personal. “Artistically speaking,” she says, “people can do whatever they want, but in terms of an altar, it’s really about the person that they want to honor.”
Marigolds are another altar essential. Marchi writes that marigolds were “integral elements of altars for the dead” in ancient Mesoamerica. “Marigolds are the longest surviving flower,” says Sofia. “In November, marigolds are the only flower that’s still blossoming. And marigolds are also a special flower that supposedly invites the spirits to come in. If you see altars, you’ll always see marigolds, and some of the rituals do little paths up into the altar and the food with the marigolds.” If death is a passageway into life, perhaps fiery little marigolds—defiantly continuing to bloom during the season of death—represent the spark of life in the realm of the dead.
“To be part of the Marigold Parade, everyone always has to be painted like a skeleton, because that’s part of death. But to paint your face, it’s not about Halloween. It’s not about terror and fright,” Sofia explains. “It’s about honoring the equality of life and death.” Inherent in the very concept of Día de los Muertos is a recognition that mourning (tempered with celebration) is necessary for restoring the balance between life and death. (As Sofia reminds me, the recent animated film about Day of the Dead was called The Book of Life.)
Altars are concrete expressions of mourning. Making one can be a very healing activity, and it is this healing aspect of Day of the Dead that most appeals to Sofia. “We don’t have the patience or the sensitivity to give people the space to really mourn publicly,” she says. Sofia began participating in Día de los Muertos while teaching about it as a public school teacher. The project helped her students think about life and death in different ways. “I was doing the bilingual program, so we wanted to talk about different Latino and Hispanic culture. It ended up being a really beautiful, healing thing. I had been able to help the kids that were dealing with grief and loss issues.”
Although they belong to the Albuquerque Public School system, the South Valley schools where Sofia taught for many years have consistently struggled to receive the same funding and opportunities as schools in Albuquerque proper. South Valley is often marginalized by its more affluent neighbor. “Up until 1980, we had the city sewer system and transfer station, yet we weren’t served by the garbage pickup,” Sofia says. “We had the sewer system, and yet we didn’t have good drinking water. Everybody had wells that were polluted. They knew about nitric contamination in the community since the sixties, and they never let the community know until a baby almost died. Blue baby syndrome effects mostly infants, but there’s cancers, there’s thyroid problems, there’s autism-spectrum––those are all things that arise from the kinds of contamination we have there.”
What does this have to do with Día de los Muertos? Querencia. For Muertos y Marigolds, reclamando nuestra querencia means “taking a stand against injustices in the community;” restoring land, water and culture; protecting home and heritage; and “defying systemic, institutional, and internal oppression.” As stated on the Muertos y Marigolds website: “We reclaim our demon, the chupacabra, as an ally in ridding this land of malicious, power-hungry, exploitative entities.” This year, the Marigold Parade will be held two days before Election Day, and the political climate is tense. Sheep don’t vote, says the theme, so stand up with the gente (people) instead, and hit the ballot boxes!
First, though, celebrate cultural pride, community, life and death. Remember the loved ones you’ve lost, and savor the bittersweet tension between absence and presence. Nurture the spirit of reciprocity and get involved. Paint a calavera on your face and walk and dance and laugh and sing together with neighbors, friends and family. Feel the cosmic balance of creation and destruction as sawdust and seed murals are “painted” on the ground and then trampled into oblivion. Relish the South Valley’s unique querencia and share your basic human authenticity while honoring the authentic expression of a culture that might not be your own.
See you at the Marigold Parade.
The 24th Annual Marigold Parade takes place from 2-6 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 6. The parade begins behind the South Valley Sheriff’s substation, travels north on Isleta Boulevard SW, turns east on Arenal Road SW, and ends at the Westside Community Center. Everyone who wishes to walk in the parade must have their faces painted appropriately. Halloween costumes are not allowed.
Woodcut Block Printing with artist Henry Morales
Sugar Skull and Face Painting with artists Vanessa Alvarado and Staci Drangmeister
Papel Picado and Paper Flowers with artists Chris Baca and Roger McNew
Altar Construction with artists Sofia Martinez and Vanessa Alvarado.
Muertos y Marigolds workshops take place every weekend in October at Los Jardines Institute located at 803 La Vega Drive SW in the South Valley.
Muertos y Marigolds workshops and the Marigold Parade are funded by New Mexico Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and donation. Volunteers are always appreciated.
Visit muertosymarigolds.org for more information.
Story by Emily Ruch