Today’s Menu Choices: A Wing and A Prayer

So I went grocery shopping yesterday.  And I experienced extreme grocery cart envy.  I was in the produce section marveling at a gentleman who was filling plastic bags to the brim with tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, lemons, potatoes, peppers, and corn.  My cart looked pretty basic.  I had bananas, apples, two pineapples, and carrots.  In fact, the only item that may have caused my cart to look a little different than it did when I was shopping in Fort Wayne, Indiana was the jícama.

My feelings of food choice inadequacy grew greater with each aisle I covered.  “Why are you putting Pop Tarts in this cart?  Put them back on the shelf now!” (I did not.)  I was seriously bummed to discover that there was absolutely no white cheddar popcorn to be found anywhere in the store.  Thank goodness the freezer shelves that occasionally house the Red Barron frozen pizzas were empty.  It was after I added the jar of Prego spaghetti sauce to the cart I truly knew I had a problem.

In an earlier posting, I shared the deep, dark secret that I do not really like to cook.  However, I like even less letting an incredible opportunity pass me by.  Here I am living in Mexico, eating like a gringa; an unhealthy one at that.  (In the event that my mom is reading this, the Pop Tarts were for Steve, and I do eat a lot of salads.)  As I placed my items on the conveyor belt, shaking my head at the pathetic display, I vowed that things were going to be different from this point on.

thumbnailOn the way home I stopped at Santa Rosa’s, the small, local grocery store for some coyotas and Flor de Jamaica.  After unloading the car, I warmed my breakfast cookie in the microwave and began brewing a batch of aqua de Jamaica.  I fired up my computer and started the search for Sonoran recipes.  Three hours later, I had the budding promise of culinary disaster…er…change.

I made a new grocery list.  I do, however, draw the line at one major grocery trip per day.  So in the meantime, I am psyching myself up by breathing real heavy like a boxer before the fight, hopping around the house on my toes, jabbing the air left and right, and shouting into the mirror, “Who rules the kitchen?  That’s right!  You do!”  There may or may not be some growling involved.

And if all else fails, at least coyotas and aqua de Jamaica beat Pop Tarts and Coca Cola!

 

Agua de Jamaica

8 oz. dried Jamaica flowers

16 cups water

sugar to taste

ice

Wash the flowers in a strainer.  Put them in a pot with the water and heat until the water boils.  Remove from heat, cover, and let stand 24 hours.  Pour through a strainer to remove the flowers.  Once the water is in its serving container, add sugar to taste.

Guaymas’ Hidden Gems

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While I have lived here for nearly a year and a half, there are many places I have not discovered or experienced in Guaymas/San Carlos.  With the help and recommendations (and directions) from many kind friends, I am uncovering more of my new to me home everyday.  And yes, I still do “touristy” things like dolphin cruises, horseback rides, and sunset viewing from the trendy swings at the local beach bar.  But I also travel 35 minutes and brave parking in El Centro just to buy warm tortillas and the best totopitos in town.  I know where to find the freshest churros.  I will bypass the convenience of Ley or Walmart to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from produce stands at the Municipal Market.

Every once in a while, my husband and I get the chance to be tour guides to folks who know less about our home than we do.  Steve’s employer sees many business travelers, and occasionally, their visits include weekends.  When someone asks, “So, what do you do for fun around here?” we don’t necessarily want to answer with, “Well, we spend a lot of time napping and reading on the beach.”  Even if it is true.  This is our chance to show off the city we have come to love.

 

The gazebo in Plaza 13 de Julio was designed by Gustav Eiffel.  Yes that Eiffel!  Iglesia San Fernando, built in 1850, is the oldest church in Guaymas.  Its doors are open daily, and mass is still held on Sunday mornings.  Many people listen to mass from the shade in the plaza.  Plaza de los Tres Presidentes honors the three Mexican presidents from Guaymas.    It overlooks el Palacio Municipal, home of the local government.  The malecón offers stunning views of the Sea of Cortez and surrounding mountains.  A statue honoring Guaymas’ fishing history is found here.

 

Despite reviews on Trip Advisor and other travel sites that bemoan Guaymas and its failure to “realize its potential”, I love to be downtown in the middle of it all.  I do understand the criticism, however.  The beautiful, historic buildings are in severe disrepair.  No two curbs are the same height.  Sidewalks are pockmarked and crumbling in places.  Large potholes exist in the main thoroughfares.  Garbage pickup is sporadic.  Old cities in Europe manage to remain enchanting.  I have heard Guaymas described as “crummy, but authentic”.

 

And it is the authenticity of the city that appeals to me.  Every morning shopkeepers are in front of their stores, sweeping the debris from those crumbling sidewalks and washing their windows.  Those sellers without an actual storefront, unload and arrange their goods on tables, lining the main avenue- -an eclectic mix of clothing, backpacks, jewelry, mixed nuts, and fresh fruit.  Food trucks line Calle 19, and it does not take long before the enticing smells of tacos, tostadas, and churros overpower fumes from the buses.

There is a buzz of activity, no matter the day of the week.  The sidewalks are jammed withthumbnail-1 shoppers and students on their way to and from school.  Groups of men gather around the shoeshine chair to chat.  Farmers park their pickup trucks at the busiest corners, full of fresh oranges, watermelons, asparagus, and elote.  There are at least eight barbershops in a two block area, and each is bustling.  Loud music spills onto the streets from various stores around the city market, each playing something different.  Men pitch their goods using microphones and portable speakers.  A busy grocery store does brisk business.  But so does the family selling homegrown tomatoes, peppers, and onions. And the woman removing the tines from and cutting the nopal cactus into bite size pieces.

thumbnail-3It is the friendliness and the positive attitudes of the people I meet and see when I am in Guaymas that stands out the most.  There is always a smile and a “buen día” given in passing.  And due to the crowds, there are a lot of these greetings.  The beauty of Guaymas is its people.  And a closer look at them reveals that Guaymas has definitely realized its potential.

Brain Freeze

Earlier this week the weather report warned of cold and very chilly temperatures around midnight and in the early morning hours.  A picture of two women wearing puffy ski jackets, hats, and scarves even accompanied the article.  Those chilly temperatures?  68 degrees.  Yeah, I was still sleeping with the air conditioner on…

Sorry friends and family who are beginning to pull out sweaters and snuggle up under fleece blankets after being pelted by sleet and cold, drizzly rain.  At least you have your Pumpkin Spice Lattes, bonfires, and Hallmark Channel movies.  Meanwhile, despite the “cold” morning temperatures, the afternoon and evening temperatures are still high enough to generate a bright red face, a rolling sweat, and the need to change shirts at least twice daily.  I am over here still looking for that ice cold treat guaranteed to take the edge off- – besides a frosty margarita.

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Paleta de mango

Paletas, or popsicles, are one of my favorites.  No need for a stick here.  Fresh fruit is mashed, sugared to taste (if necessary), and poured into a plastic baggie.  The juice and chunks of fruit are then frozen.  If the fruit used is watermelon, even the seeds are tossed in for good measure!  Venders fill their coolers and set off for baseball diamonds, busy street corners, and plazas- -really almost anywhere they will find people needing relief.  Paletas are sold for about five pesos each.  At that price, why not buy two?  You just tear the corner of the baggie with your teeth and enjoy!  Mango, pineapple, and strawberry are crowd favorites.

 

Nieve, the Spanish word for snow, is used interchangeably with helado, the word for ice

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Nieves de coco, piña colada, and chicle

cream.  Nieves are water, not dairy based.  Fresh fruit, water, and other natural ingredients are mixed by hand giving the treat a creamier appearance than paletas.  The mixing process can take from 90 to 120 minutes.  Nieves are served in a cone, cup, or a plastic baggie.  Popular flavors include pistachio, chicle, and tamarind.  I bought mine at one of our local grocery store for about eight pesos.

 

While the difference between a paleta and nieve is subtle, it is there.  My good friend, Jesús, straightened me out.  I thought I was sharing a paleta with him.  After eating it, he corrected me.  It is all about texture.

Finally,  there is the raspado.  I recently came across a gentleman with his raspado cart at a street festival.  I do not believe he had ever had a customer so excited to try his concoction.  My excitement was contagious, as my group of friends lined up behind me. Raspados are shaved ice, natural fruit juice, fresh fruit, and a bit of sweetened condensed milk.  Yes, basically a snow cone, but better.  Real fruit juice and chunks of fresh fruit are game changers.  The condensed milk adds interesting flavor as well.

thumbnail-1While this particular vender offered fairly common varieties of the treat (peach, pinapple, grape, tamarind, and mango), one of the most popular raspados in Sonora is the Diablito, or Little Devil.  This is a hot and spicy snow cone made with tamarind, chamoy, chile en polvo (like Tajín), and lemon.  To add even more flavor, Diablitos are garnished with hot chile lollipops.  Once I work my way through the fruit varieties, maybe I will give this one a try.  Maybe.  But probably only if there is a very chilly morning.

My grande cost for the raspado was 25 pesos.  Each summer in Indiana, my family went through a Hawaiian Ice phase.  We were easily spending thumbnail-7$15.00 a week to get our fix.  At this rate, I can sample a new flavor daily and treat a friend!

Sure, there are days I miss the changing of the colors, the brisk breezes, wearing my favorite fall jacket, the anticipation of a weather delay from school, and Starbuck’s white hot chocolate.  But most days, I am perfectly content to use my teeth to rip open the end of a baggie of cold, fruit goodness and enjoy the pictures my friends are sharing.  At least I think it is them.  It can be hard to tell through their layers of cold weather gear.

Holy Obsession!

thumbnail-2I am a non-practicing Catholic.  My first sign of rebellion reared its ugly head when I was in the second grade.  I chose not to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confessing my sins to a priest, prior to receiving my First Communion.  I have no idea why I felt so uncomfortable about this.  My sins at the time could have been no worse than sneaking an extra cookie for dessert or hitting my brother.

I do, however, remember informing my parents of my decision while my face was planted firmly in the kitchen table (Catholic guilt already at work) and spending Reconciliation morning running around the school gym in a one piece, royal blue P.E. uniform with a lot of other students.  I realize today that those kids were probably all the non-Catholics who attended the school for a “more traditional”, “more structured” education.  Or to avoid the public schools.  That day though, they offered a little comfort to me in that I was not alone in my decision.

I loved the church my family attended.  We met in the band room of one of the city’s Catholic High Schools.  We sat on folding chairs.  One parishioner actually made the bread the priest blessed, turning it into the Body of Christ.  Another made the wine.  Someone played the flute, and there were guitars in our little church band.  Sharing the sign of peace took 20 minutes or more because we got out of our chairs to greet people sitting on the other side of the room.  We didn’t just shake hands.  People asked after one another and hugged.  We wore blue jeans and sweatshirts.  Every spring, we had mass outside in one of the most beautiful flower gardens in the city.

thumbnailMaybe I just never found a church I felt at home in after that.  Maybe I was more worried that this time there would be no way out of confession.  And surely it would last three days and kill the priest.  So I am at a complete loss as to how I have come home with an 8”x 10” picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Pope John Paul II (what?!) and a tank top emblazoned with the image of Guadalupe on both sides in the past week.  Never mind the collection of Guadalupe candles, folk art, and jewelry I am slowly amassing.  I even have a Virgin de Guadalupe Pinterest page!  I recently pinned a freaking tattoo!!

I fell inexplicably in love with Our Lady from the very moment we crossed the border, and I saw her likeness for the first time, painted on a mountainside.  When my son applied to law school, I visited her shrine in San Carlos regularly to light candles.  I want desperately to buy a stone work carving for my front yard just to save myself some time.  My husband does not think I notice that he speeds up every time we drive through Magdalena where these beauties are on display.  I have a plan to design a “shrine wall” or “icon corner” in my home, sneaking in one new piece a month or so (and no, the tank top does not count).

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Shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico

According to Catholic accounts, the Virgin Mary presented herself on four different occasions to a native Mexican peasant named Juan Diego.  She first appeared to him on December 9, 1531 at the Hill of Tepeyac, today, a suburb of Mexico City.  She asked him (in his native Aztec language) to have a church built in her honor there.  Juan Diego’s request was refused by the archbishop.  La Virgin appeared again to encourage Juan Diego to persist.

The second time Juan Diego approached the archbishop, he indicated that he needed some kind of miraculous sign.  Juan Diego passed the message along, and the young woman promised one the next day.  Juan Diego missed the next meeting because he was caring for his sick uncle.  La Virgin tracked him down, promised his uncle was well, and instructed him to return to the Hill of Tepeyac to pick the flowers that were blooming there.  Juan Diego brought non-native, Castilian roses to La Virgin.  She arranged them in his cloak and told him to deliver them to the archbishop.

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Iglesia San Fernando, Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico

When Juan Diego opened his cloak for the archbishop, the flowers fell to the floor and the image of La Virgin was imbedded in the material.  She then appeared as a vision to Juan Diego’s uncle and asked him to tell the archbishop of his miraculous recovery.  At this time, she shared that she wanted to be known as Guadalupe.  A small chapel was quickly built on the Hill of Tepeyac.

Today, the original cloak of Juan Diego is housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, north of Mexico City.  Her shrine is the most visited Catholic shrine in the world and the third most visited religious site.

Perhaps I feel a special love for La Virgin de Guadalupe because my grandmother had such a strong devotion and deep relationship with the Virgin Mary.  I am able to honor my grandmother’s memory and show my respect for her religion, to which she was deeply faithful, while  plodding along my lapsed course.  Then again, La Virgin de Guadalupe is credited with converting nearly seven million native people to Catholicism.  There may be hope for me yet.

A Festival for the Living on The Day of the Dead

I had been looking forward to Saturday all week—maybe all month even.  October 28 was the opening day of the Festival de la Calaca in Guaymas.  My relationship with festivals in Guaymas has been spotty at best, leaving me feeling a bit underwhelmed most of the time.  The Posada last December was mostly a raffle for bicycles.  And a free hot dog.  El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos involved standing in line for a piece of Rosca de Reyes, or King Cake.  My son was so disappointed by both events, he told me that I was on my own from here on out.  No worries.  I rallied a new group of festival goers, who had no idea of past fails.

thumbnail-2The festival was organized by Casa de Cultura, a government sponsored organization that promotes Mexican Arts and Culture.  In the week leading up to the  celebration, the center sponsored several workshops including the art of paper flower making, skull painting, and traditional Catrina make-up.  I surprised myself by  stepping outside of my comfort zone, attending the workshop on make-up- -ALONE!  The workshop was well crowded, and I quickly made a new friend.  I call her a friend because I believe that once you have used your fingers to apply white paint to a stranger’s face and lips, a certain level of intimacy has been achieved.

Props to both Steve and Brad, who did not bat an eye, upon seeing Patty and me in our
Catrina makeup on Saturday afternoon.  We both got a “you look great” and then “I’m going to try and pretend there is nothing weird about this”.  Small children, however, were fascinated by the two gringas in face paint.  We got a lot of stares (okay, I am assuming it was fascination here), shy smiles, tentative waves, and whispered “holas”.

Our first stop was Plaza 13 de Julio.  Colorful papel picado was strung from the thumbnail-1thumbnail-1thumbnail
lampposts above us.  Floral wreaths hung on the posts and the center kiosk as well.  Venders sold tamales, Cheetos and chamoy, totopos, raspados, aqua de jamaica and horchata.  There were carts full of children’s toys, jewelry, paintings, instruments, and crafts for sale.  There were balloons and blow-up toys on sticks.  They were so bright and colorful, I was looking for any excuse to buy one.  A band played lively music.  Catrinas, standing 12 feet tall, overlooked the festivities from their corner posts.

We then headed over to Plaza de la Pistola where the ofrendas were displayed.  Most were sponsored by universities and high schools and honored important  Mexicans of the past and present like Cantiflas, Nezahualcoyoti, and La Cruz Roja.    I nearly cried at the ofrenda of a young boy; it included special touches like his school books and favorite snacks.   I wondered if he had been a student at the school that designed his altar.  There were incredible sawdust carpets in front of many of the altars, some of which look longer than a week to make.  These lead the soul to the ofrenda and help minimize the contact it makes with the earth.

We walked over to the parade route.  It was scheduled to begin at 6:00 pm.  With our bags of churros in hand, we found a seat on the curb and waited.  And waited. And waited a little more.  Cars kept coming down the parade route.  We weren’t entirely sure how road closures for events like this were handled in guaymas.  We could see the lights of the lead police vehicle and hear the band, but still the cars kept coming.  The sidewalks were IMG_4580lined with people on both sides.  No one seemed to mind the delay.  They visited with one another and enjoyed treats like paletas, algodón de azúcar, and chamoy apples.

Finally, at 6:45 we caught our first glimpse of the parade.  There were two marching bands, baton twirlers, dance troupes, and floats- -that were pushed by hand!  Parents walked alongside the parade, keeping watchful eyes on their children who were participating and/or directing them back into proper position.  Yaqui Deer Dancer Catrinas threw candy to children along the route.  Everyone clapped in time to the music and even sang along when the band played Despacito!  There was a long line of cars (those that had apparently just missed the ambiguous cutoff time) crawling behind the parade down Avenida Serdán.

thumbnail-6After the parade, we headed back to the Plaza for one last loop.  Things were really happening now.  Colorful lights blinked on and off.  The music was louder, as was the crowd.  A movie screen featured children’s cartoons starring Catrinas.  There were arts and crafts for the kiddos.  People were lining up to have their faces painted. Candles had been lit at each of the altars.  Everyone was eating or drinking something yummy!

This was not a festival of death.  This was a festival of life.   Thethumbnail serious business will take place Tuesday and Wednesday nights in homes across the city.  This night was about embracing the living and discovering joy in spite of the sadness.  Casa de Cultura created a marvelous spectacle for all and taught us something about one of Mexico’s most important cultural traditions at the same time.  I am certain that even Caleb would have loved it!

 

 

Offerings of Love

Who does not love a good festival?  Great food, music, displays, and handicrafts…  They offer a little something for everyone and a lot of opportunity to learn more about local customs and traditions.  And while many towns and cities throughout Mexico are finalizing months worth of plans for community Día de Muertos celebrations, the most important and meaningful of these preparations take place at home.

It is believed that at midnight on October 31, and again, on November 1, the gates of heaven open for a 24 hour period.  At this time, the souls of the departed may return to visit with their loved ones here earth.  There is a belief that the dead provide their families protection, good luck, and wisdom from beyond the grave.  Therefore, souls are welcomed home in grand fashion.  Families erect altars in honor of the deceased.  These altars are not shrines, rather, they are ofrendas, or offerings, designed to lead the spirits home.

There is rich symbolism in each of the items included in the ofrenda.  These vary regionally, depending on the local customs, traditions, and/or the availability of special foods, drinks, and flowers.  Cost even factors in; some families may spend two month’s worth of earnings!

Ofrendas  have two, three, or seven levels, representing earth, heaven, purgatory, and/or the steps necessary to reach

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Ofrenda welcoming the soul of Buz, by his wife, Patty
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The ofrenda displayed in my home

heaven.  Photographs of the deceased are prominently featured.  Flowers, whose strong scents and bright colors are believed to guide the way, are arranged on the ofrendas.  Some people, use petals from the flowers to create pathways from the door to the altar, extra insurance that loved ones do not lose their way.    Baby’s Breath is often used on altars of children; symbolizing innocence and purity.  Cempasuchil, orange marigolds, are another popular choice.   These flowers are native to Mexico and were used by the Aztecs during funeral ceremonies.  Other popular flowers include cockscombs, hoary stock, chrysanthemums, and gladiolas.  Copal incense is burned, providing another sweet fragrance, and candles illuminate the way.

Papel picado, or chiseled paper, is a folk art that originated in the town of Puebla.  Artists used papel de China (tissue paper) to create paper ornaments, lamp shades, and other artworks.  By the 1920’s, artisans were displaying and distributing paper flags they made by “chiseling” designs on the tissue paper.  Papel picado is used for numerous special occasions today, including Día de Muertos.  Ofrendas include papel picado flags decorated with Catrinas, skeletons, and other religious icons.

 

Families often include water (to quench the thirst of the soul after its long journey), salt (it acts as a purifier), personal items of the deceased (tools, books, cigarettes), crosses, statues of La Virgin de Guadalupe and other patron saints, and decorations like incense burners, figurines of skeletons or skulls, and candy skulls made of sugar or chocolate.  These items personalize the altar for the person being remembered and help each soul feel welcomed and calm.

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Ofrenda in honor of Frida Kahlo, designed by students at Secundaria de La Manga

In the early evening hours, preceding the midnight return, foods (served only on very special occasions due to cost) and drinks are added to the offrendas.  Turkey with mole sauce, tamales, tortillas, hot chocolate, tequila, fruits, and pan de muerto, a sweet bread baked as an offering to the dead, are arranged on the altars.  The soul’s journey from heaven is long, and the food and drink provide nourishment upon its arrival.  After the soul has enjoyed the “essence” of the meal, family members share the treats.  Sometimes entire communities come together to share and celebrate together.

November 2 is spent at the cemetery.  The majority in Mexico are public, meaning there are no caretakers to maintain the grounds and keep the areas tidy.  Families gather to clean the gravesite by pulling weeds, planting flowers, and cutting back grasses.  After the hard work is over, they enjoy a picnic style meal together, often to the music of mariachi bands.

Cemeteries and death are not seen as scary, dark, or creepy.  The bright colors, loud music, pleasing smells, and delicious food evoke feelings of happiness, love and togetherness.  Día de Muertos is my very favorite of all Mexican celebrations for this reason.  I can not help but be filled with excitement over the idea of a bonus visit from my grandparents and father-in-law.

And in true “teacher fashion” I have gone on much too long.  Surely, it is time for “recess”.  Or a shot of that tequila sitting on the altar!

The “After” Party

thumbnailIt seems odd to see jack-o-lanterns, spider webs, black cats, and witches’ hats on display in the stores and restaurants throughout Guaymas and San Carlos.  Día de Muertos, is Mexico’s most popular holiday, and I fully expected that it would have more influence in my little town than it seems to.  I have learned, however, that due to Sonora’s proximity to the U.S. border, and greater access to images via television and social media, Halloween has become increasingly popular.  Residents in our state, as well as those in many border states, adopt more American traditions  There are more Halloween costumes and treat bags on sale at the local Walmart than calaveras, Catrinas, and candles.  Día de Muertos is still widely celebrated in the central and southern states of Mexico where there is a greater indigenous presence, and less American influence.

In 2003, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) proclaimed Día de Muertos as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  Intangible Cultural Heritage refers to traditions that are passed down through the generations via arts, storytelling, performance, and rituals associated with nature and the universe.  I was determined to ignore the Halloween trappings (especially the chocolate) and focus on learning more about and celebrating Día de Muertos.

Hundreds of years ago, the Aztecs celebrated a festival during August in honor of
Mictecacihuatl, a goddess who served as guardian of the dead.  After Spanish colonization and due to the influence of the Catholic Church, ancient religious traditions were combined with Catholic ones.  Today, the festival coincides with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.  It is believed that at midnight on October 31 (Día de los Angelitos), the gates of heaven open so that the souls of deceased children come down from above and reunite with their families for a 24 hour period.  At midnight on November 1, the souls of deceased adults  rejoin their loved ones.

Día de Muertos is not a sad, scary time.  The tradition is described beautifully by Christina Preiss when she says, “The first death you die is when you stop breathing, the second when you are buried in the earth, the third is when the last person here forgets you. So this traditions ensures you never die the third death and your family member comes back and is always with you.”  Families remember the best of times and the very best of the people they have lost with bright colors, beautiful flowers, candles, incense, music, and favorite foods, drinks, and toys.  Many families spend the equivalent of more than two month of their salaries on preparations for this holiday, decorating altars and planning celebrations at grave sites.

One of the most recognizable figures in Día de Muertos festivities is La Catrina.thumbnail-17.jpeg  Designed by José Guadalupe Posada in 1910, La Calavera Catrina, became the symbol of the Mexican Revolution and “death” of the privileged class.  Today she represents the idea that everyone is equal in death.   Catrina Parades and/or Festivales de las Calacas are held in many cities and towns throughout Mexico.  By dressing up, participants hope to ward off death, tricking her into believing they are already dead.

And fortunately, in spite of all the Halloween excitement, Guaymas is hosting a Festival de la Calaca this coming weekend!  I will continue with this same theme in my next article, sharing information about the elaborate atlars and gravesite visits.  But for now, I need to add the finishing touches to my Catrina costume!