By Virginia RezaNovember 11, 2008
A variety of items common to the military, along with skulls, candles, flowers, salt and water, were displayed in an altar built by Morale, Welfare and Recreation representatives to commemorate fallen heroes.
The altar was constructed for the Day of the Dead celebration and will be on display until December at the El Paso Museum of History.
"The day is about honoring people who passed on," said Dawn Thurmond, cultural program specialist at the museum. "There is a lot of misconception about it being a morbid day, and that is not the case. What I think is interesting about the Mexican culture is that they mock death. So when you see the skulls, it's about mocking death - making fun of it. To them, people don't ever really die because the memory of the deceased continues to live on."
"We are honoring our fallen Soldiers in a way we normally wouldn't, but which completely customary in this region," said Bill Ketcherside, chief of MWRs outdoor recreation branch. "This is also a great way to expand our partnership with the El Paso community."
In the Mexican culture and other Latin countries, many people believe that during the Day of the Dead, it is easier for souls to visit the living. The intent is to create altars with the departed's favorite foods, drinks and other items to encourage their souls to visit.
"So we got all of our creative minds together and attended a workshop given by a local cultural lecturer, Frank Varela, who taught us the meaning of the altars and everything that goes with it and what they represent."
Altars can be constructed from cardboard or plastic boxes then covered with a white tablecloth or bed sheet, which symbolizes purity. A more colorful piece of cloth may be partially draped over the white cloth, Varela said.
The altars vary in size and elaboration, but must obtain several items and must be built in three levels. The levels signify the three levels of death: heaven, when the person dies; earth, when they are buried; and home, when there is no one left to remember them.
A photo or photos of the deceased, the three skulls - which represent the holy trinity - and four candles representing north, south, east and west, which help guide the soul's way home, should be placed on the top level.
Copal incense and flowers are placed on the second level of the altars. The incense is believed to ward off evil spirits, and the scent of the flowers lead the spirits home. Water and salt should also be placed on the second tier. Water serves to quench the departed's thirst and wash away their sins. The salt helps purify their souls and is also used to season their food.
Food, "Bread of the Dead," memorabilia and other objects can be placed on the third level.
"What's so special about the altar is that the legacy of the departed honored in the altar will continue to live on as a memory of this earth until the last person who sees the altar passes away," said Thurmond. "It was great for representatives of MWR to participate because they were able to learn and really understand the cultural significance of what the altar is. There is nothing morbid about it; it is something really beautiful."
Centro Mayapan held a traditional celebration featuring artists, clothing and food unique to the Yucatan Peninsula. Numerous booths with Day of the Dead arts and crafts, music and dancing were also part of the celebration.
"The best part of all this is doing things with our children, so they can have an impact on how beautiful not only the Mexican culture is, but all cultures," said Rosa Maria Casillas, an event attendee."
Scholars trace the origins of the holiday to indigenous observances dating back to 1800 B.C. to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mic-tec-achi-huatl, or "The Lady of the Dead."