I just made this season’s last batch of salsa fresca from the bowl of tomatoes and a few leftover Anaheim peppers sitting on our kitchen counter. Pureed with white onion, garlic, lime juice, and cilantro still fresh from the garden, we’ve got salsa to celebrate El Día de los Muertos with the pinto beans simmering on the stove.
Saturday was the last pick of our farm season and our Stonebridge Halloween party. Kids and adults played round after round of doughnut-on-a-string from the donut-dangler in the greenhouse, while families carved jack o’ lanterns on picnic tables in view of snow-covered Longs Peak and Meeker. The weather was resplendent once again, perfect for celebrating the end of a long and bountiful season. People brought canned, brewed, and handmade samples of their culinary and craft talents for the “Can-Do” basket—take one, leave one—and left much appreciated gifts for the farmers’ winter pantry as well. The best farm inspired costume? Renee as an heirloom tomato in stuffed long red underwear and a twig “loom” in her hair. Get it? But all the costumes were clever and beautiful and vibrant on such a gorgeous day.
After the party was over, the afternoon was still lovely, so John and I went to the Longmont Museum for their annual El Día de los Muertos event.
After the dances, we ate refried beans, rice, tortillas, and pan de muerte, sweet bread of the dead, with hot spiced Mexican cocoa and visited the altars that honor community members’ loved ones now departed. The museum was packed; Longmont hosts the biggest El Día de los Muertos event in the state of Colorado and it’s wonderful to see Longmont’s bicultural heritage celebrated in this way.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel The Lacuna, the fictional protagonist Harrison Shepherd keeps a journal about his service to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, which steers his life down a political, historical, and artistic path of great interest to readers. Part of the richness of the novel is Harrison’s detailed descriptions of the food he cooks for the famous couple’s many parties and national celebrations. Kingsolver’s genius is at work here: Harrison gets a job mixing Rivera’s plaster because the lonely boy has learned from the family cook how to mix a lagoon of flour and water for pan dulce.
Even as a young boy, Harrison keeps a diary that describes his life with his mother after their return to Mexico (his father is from the US). For the entry titled 2 November, Dead People’s Day, he writes of going to the cemetery with their cook to honor family members who have passed away: “Leandro, wife, and dead people are having their party at the graveyard behind the rock beach on the other side. Tamales in banana leaves, atole, and pollo pipian. Leando said those were the only foods that could attract his brother away from a lady. He meant Lady of the Dead, who is called Mictec-something—Leandro couldn’t spell it. He can’t read.”
Harrison means Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the underworld, who presides over the bones of the dead. El Día de los Muertos is an ancient Aztec tradition in Latin American cultures, but in Mexico has more of a celebratory feel than in other countries as families gather at cemeteries to socialize in community with good food and friends, a gathering that brings death front and center and perhaps makes its inevitability less frightening by the omnipresent images of Death and skeletons and skulls, reminders that life on earth is temporary. Still, I learned recently, you wouldn’t wish someone a “Happy Day of the Dead” since the tradition is more about honoring the dead than partying with them.
In a previous posting called “Dying in Orange,” I wrote about how the fall season reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s life and work, how she painted her own image implanted in the fecundity of the natural world. So this year I dressed as Frida Kahlo for Halloween and El Día de los Muertos, inspired by the way her body became another canvas for her art.
I found earrings and a bracelet made by an artist on Etsy.com dangling with charms of Kahlo’s 1939 painting The Two Fridas, red roses and hearts, and an ornate silver cross. I re-strung a chunky orange necklace of my grandmother’s, the closest thing to Kahlo’s pre-Columbian jewelry I could find; I wore a full skirt bought on a trip to Mexico a few years ago to celebrate the wedding of a favorite student with his wonderful family, and a shawl woven in green tendrils that might have been the background for one of Kahlo’s paintings. I bought dark purple lipstick to add a vibrant touch and I twisted my hair in two braids on top of my head and bobby-pinned an orange zinnia I had dried. I needed more flowers, but the zinnias had been killed by the first frost days before, so a single bloom had to do. For shoes, I found tooled black leather pumps at Serendipity, one of my favorite local vintage clothing shops.
[But writing this and including my picture here makes me a bit uncomfortable: it seems too personal, too much about appearance. Maybe this helps me understand a little bit the risk Frida Kahlo took in creating such intimate and hyperpersonalized art.]
Some people said I should dress like Frida more often. Others said I already do. It’s tempting. I loved wearing a colorful and slightly flamboyant costume, the skirt swishing around me, the shawl so adaptable to the nuances of temperature and sunlight throughout the day. And jewelry . . . what better way to express personality, culture, and occasion than jewelry?
All this is to say that the end of the fall is a glorious time to celebrate all that the earth and our labor has given and to honor those who have come before us, as well as our own insistence on life even as winter—and death—approaches.
For those in the Boulder County area, the Longmont Museum and Cultural Center will feature photographs of Frida Kahlo by her friend and lover Nickolas Muray from Nov 13 – January 2, as well as a presentation on her art and a retablo workshop.