By Leslie Peña, Spanish Teacher
Growing up in México, I remember working on colorful altars adorned with picture frames, candles, incense, marigolds, food, and a flower petal path to lead the dead to their altar every early November in school. The best Day of the Dead celebrations and decorations I have encountered have been in México City. Women dress up as “Catrinas” with elaborate flower headbands, face paint and traditional Mexican dresses and there is always a beautiful parade. Every store, restaurant, hotel and coffee shop has their own altar, each one uniquely vivid and ornate.
The day of the dead celebration dates back to the Aztecs, when it was believed that the deceased embarked on a journey, the destination the place where they could finally rest in peace. On November 1st and 2nd in México, cemeteries are filled with music, food, candles and flowers. It is not a sad time, but rather a celebration of life! People gather around their loved ones’ tombs and bring them their favorite food.
Every year at Grace, we try to bring a bit of México into our Spanish class, learning about the traditional Day of the Dead. In the past, students have made their own altars at home. We have also visited New York-based cultural non-profit Mano a Mano to view their altar and participate in their celebration at St. Mark’s Church, where they would learn the history and try authentic Méxican food.
As this year is unprecedented, we could not celebrate in our usual ways. Luckily, on Monday October 26, El Museo del Barrio offered a day of the dead bread cooking class over zoom through their new bilingual digital initiative El Museo en Tu Casa. This class was offered by one of my favorite Méxican chefs, Fany Gerson, who the 8th graders had the opportunity of meeting in 6th grade when we visited her Méxican dessert shop “La Newyorkina” for a Spanish class field trip where she talked to them about traditional Mexican ingredients and desserts.
Fany Gerson, has been featured in the New York Times, Food and Wine, Fine Cooking, Saveur Magazine, Fine Cooking, Fast Company and New York magazines, among others. She is the owner of La Newyorkina Mexican dessert shop in West Village. She has written three books, My Sweet Mexico, which was nominated for a James beard award 2010 for Best baking and pastry cookbook Paletas and Mexican Ice Cream. She was a mentor in the WE NYC Women’s leadership program in 2016 and recognized as a Latin woman leader in 2017 by El Diario.
As a tasty supplement to our cultural lessons, we also celebrated in Spanish class by tasting traditional Day of the Dead bread from authentic Méxican NYC bakeries Panaderia 2D and La NewYorkina.
There are many different traditional sweet breads made for this celebration. Some are sculpted into shapes of flowers, the Virgin Mary, skulls or animals. Some are topped with sesame seeds and colorful head figurines. Most have a sugar topping and are infused with orange.
The students learned how to make this bread decorated with “sugar bones” and took a moment to remember the life of those who are no lo no longer with us.
!Feliz Día de Muertos!