Some Americans find the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos creepy, says Marie Mertz, owner of restaurant and a member of the City of Elk Grove’s multicultural committee. Mertz begs to differ. Sure, Mexicans hang out in cemeteries on the holiday—celebrated Tuesday—painting skulls made of sugar and laughing at gruesome poems about death. But Mertz, a native of Jalisco, says her favorite holiday also bears a striking resemblance to another occasion celebrated by millions of Americans earlier this week: Halloween. She shared her thoughts on the two holidays with Elk Grove Patch Monday as she and cook Lupita Robledo prepared an altar in the restaurant.
Why do you say Halloween is similar to Día de los Muertos?
Both holidays have very complex and interesting histories. Halloween was a pagan holiday: The Europeans were afraid that bad spirits would come and take their crops so they dressed up to scare them away. In Mexico, the Spanish came and destroyed indigenous temples and built their own temples on top. When the people continued their custom of visiting their dead, they were going to the same places.
People carve pumpkins for Halloween, but in Europe they originally used apples and turnips, just like we [Mexicans] use apples [for altars]. On both holidays, we dress up like skeletons, we eat sweets, we light candles.
So, what are the differences?
Halloween is more about scaring people. [In Mexico] we really don’t scare people, we welcome the souls. It’s like, ‘Welcome, my lovely skeleton, to my house. Have some bread and wine with me.’ We define our ghosts more precisely. It’s intimate. On Halloween, the ghosts and witches are supposed to come haunt you, but maybe in the United States our fear doesn’t allow us to have that same intimate relationship.
Tell me about the altar you’re building.
It’s for my dad. Each thing represents something. There’s a monkey because we used to have monkeys at home. My dad collected archaeological pieces, and he smoked a pipe. These [sugar] skulls I brought from Mexico six years ago. I keep them in a sealed container with a lid.
Everything has to be extremely personal. You have to have candles to light their path, and water because they will arrive thirsty.
The altar is also for my grandmother, so I have her favorite food, pozole. After she got cancer, the doctors told her she couldn’t eat it; it was too spicy. She said ‘I don’t care,’ and she ate it until she died.
When I lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, we had processions and creative altars. What are some other Day of the Dead traditions?
Do you know about the Calaveras? They are satirical, colloquial poems. You write them to make fun of your friends. Everything is related to death. There are no rules—the only thing is they have to rhyme.
How do you think people view Día de los Muertos here in Elk Grove?
I think it’s becoming more popular. I’ve always done altars here in the restaurant. Lately, the new generations are putting more emphasis on it. Even in Sacramento, they’ve started doing local events at La Raza Galería Posada. The schools are teaching kids about it.
Last night I had a customer whose family was from Sinaloa. She was very excited because she was going to Mexico and going to the grave of her grandmother for the first time.
It’s a very spiritual time of year. We have a funeral at the restaurant this week. Death is never easy, but if you’re going to die, it’s a great time to die.