Editors Note: This story first ran on Nov. 2, 2009 and because it is out of the norm, it is one of my favorite Day of the Dead pieces so we thought we would rerun it today. Today’s celebrations will be going on from 4 to 11 p.m. in Garfield Park. See our event’s calendar for this celebration and others.
In a third-floor apartment on the southeastern outskirts of the Mission District, four women orbit each other working quickly in a tiny kitchen filled with sun and the perfume of marigolds. Speaking in the softly clipped tones of Yucatecan Maya, they peel the stubborn rind off yucca as a little girl, dressed in pink, threads through their legs.
They’re preparing a feast to welcome their dead.
Every so often, the women pause from their work to grab a bite of breakfast from a shared plate on the table. Alicia Briceño, a small woman with dark ringlets, folds scrambled eggs and a pungent Yucatecan cheese into thick tortillas.
At home on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, she explains in Spanish, families celebrate Day of the Dead—Hanal Pixam in Yucatecan Maya—by sharing meals around their loved ones’ graves and covering the streets with candles and flower petals laid out in intricate patterns. The holiday stretches over two days.
“They say if you don’t remember your dead—if you don’t put out food, water, some bread, and a candle—their spirit arrives and they feel alone. They see that there’s a party in other houses but none in their own,” said Briceño.
Here in San Francisco, she and the other women are planning a simpler celebration. A dozen or so area Yucatecan Mayan families—mostly from the Mexican states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo—will share food and prayers and celebrate an ancient tradition adapted to life in a new country.
Asociación Mayab, a Bay Area nonprofit arts and cultural organization of Yucatecan Maya people, estimates that 10,000 to 15,000 indigenous Yucatecan Maya live in San Francisco and that 25,000 live in the entire Bay Area. Many of the families at the celebration are involved with Mayab’s textile workshop, traditional Jarana dance troupe and other cultural programs.
In the backyard behind the apartment, Briceño and her compañeras have set up an altar. It’s covered in a cloth painted with skulls and flowers, made by women in Mayab’s textile group, which Briceño coordinates.
A green cross crowns the altar, representing the Maya custom of burying the dead beneath a Ceiba tree. A figure of Kukulcán, a Maya creator god, is prominent. Beside it is an ear of the corn that forms the foundation of the Maya’s diet. There are also halved gourds, jícaras, for holding water for the dead; the deceased are thirsty after a long journey back to the land of the living.
The altar holds photos of three young Maya immigrants who died in San Francisco over the last few years. One was killed in a workplace accident, another was shot in the street, and the third, a young man named Francisco who danced the traditional jarana, became ill and died.
“They arrived in the U.S. full of hope, wanting to work and get ahead in life. Unfortunately, death won out,” she said.
Francisco’s dancing sandals are on the altar now, their wood soles scuffed but not worn through. There’s a shadow box, which Briceño calls a casa de bóveda, devoted to him, too. It holds photos of Francisco in life, his family weeping over his body at his funeral, cookies, and a sugar skull. The boxes are permanent homes for the souls of the dead, says Briceño.
A few moments later, Briceño and the other women make a quick trip home to meet their kids coming home from school and finish cooking. When Briceño returns a few hours later, she hops out of a red pickup.
Stacked in its bed are pans of roasted cow’s head cut into bite-size pieces and mixed with onion and cilantro.
As it grows dark, someone switches on a light for the altar and a crowd of 30 people, many of them children, eat warm yucca drenched in dark honey and sip arroz con leche in the chill air. Laden plates for the dead sit on the altar.
It’s growing colder. A half moon comes out, and candles flicker as a chopper passes overhead. And then the prayer begins.
Maria Luisa Cham, an older woman in a black suede jacket and jeans, takes a seat in front of the altar. With an assistant she begins singing the prayer service, singing to call the souls of the dead in a tremulous but piercing voice.
Cham learned the prayers and songs as a child at her aunt’s side, and has been leading services at homes, funerals and ceremonies for 42 years. “This is a tradition we’ve kept from the time we were little. It’s a tradition we won’t forget,” she said.
After the ceremony, Briceño passed around other traditional Day of the Dead foods, tacos and pibes, a tamale-like corn cake that’s traditionally baked in the ground.
As a knot of kids ran through the yard chattering about Halloween and slipping seamlessly from Spanish to English, Jorge Coot echoed Cham, saying he wants his children, who were born in the U.S., to learn his family’s customs. “We’ve got to teach them where we come from,” he said.