November 2nd marks the annual Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico where young and old gather to honor their loved ones. An altar is an offering that consists of colored tiers with candles, photographs, bread, sugar skulls, flowers, papel picado (tissue paper-cuts), incense and the favorite foods and beverage of the deceased.  Each town or region has their own way of celebrating the dead in Mexico, but the tradition of the altar offering comes from the pre-hispanic ritual of honoring the memory of the deceased.  The altar guides the dead to their final resting place.  Families may place a bar of soap and a towel for their loved one’s to wash up and a glass of water to quench thirst, others prefer liquor.

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Calaveritas Literarias | Literary Skulls

I had led a bilingual community poetry workshop for the Day of the Dead as part of Mano a Mano’s 3-day celebration for the dead at Saint Mark’s in-the-Bowery church since 2009.  In 2011, we incorporated Nahuatl into the workshop to highlight Mano a Mano’s Mexicanidad indigenous language program. Calaveritas Literarias, meaning literary little skulls, or humorous epitaphs, are written in the form of a poem usually dedicated to friends, family, teachers and politicians.  In Mexico, this is a sub-genre of an elegy or poem of lament and a good calaverita is not only lyrical, it should make readers reflect on their mortality.  I came dressed as a skeleton and brought a typewriter to give people the experience of writing calaveritas, or satirical poems for their loved ones resting in peace, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, lovers and pets. As part of the performance of creating poetry for the dead, we read their calaveritas in front of the altar installed on-site.

Participating in the Mano a Mano Day of the Dead festivities allowed me to interact with children and parents, youth, and adults that had never heard of a poem for the dead and yet they were able to write rhythmic and satirical poems in Spanish and English.  A young girl that had never touched a vintage typewriter reconnected with her Mexican roots when she wrote a calaverita for the first time.  I watched a father help his two young children write a poem for their grandfather in Spanish and bridge the linguistic distance that many children face from their parent’s homeland. I have heard many personal stories of struggle that need to be told in the voice of the immigrant experience.