Dia de Muertos: Local chef shares meaning behind traditions

Photographs, mole, colorful papel picado and sometimes tequila, are all part of el Altar de Muertos which celebrates the lives of those who were loved and have passed away.

“The original altar has to have seven levels, because it is seven levels to get to heaven. Most of the time there is an arch of flor de cempasuchil, but you want it to be orange because it represents the entrance to heaven,” Chef Celia Galindo said.

Galindo said on the first level there is a cross that is made with different materials such as flour and seeds. She said the cross represents the dead who are in heaven.

The altars have to always include food, because the dead like to smell their favorite food before they go back to heaven and wait one more year to come back again.

“These are the important ones because they say that the dead come in and say, ‘let’s see if they remember me like I was’,” Galindo said, referring to the food in the altar.

Brownsville Chef Celia Galindo, of Gourmet Central by Cel, prepares a traditional pan de muerto, bread of the dead, part of Día de los Muertos just many of the Day of the Dead traditions in Latin America. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“There always have to be fruit and pan de muerto. The fruit they say it’s because the dead come and they taste the fruit … but they don’t come and bite it, what they do is they grab it, smell the aroma of everything that’s there and that aroma will last for the whole year.”

Galindo said the tradition is that after Dia de Muertos and Dia de Santos, you come and taste the food that you left in the altar and it won’t taste like anything because the dead already took the taste.

“The first thing the dead will taste is water, because it takes them three to four days to come down from heaven to come to see the altar and it has to be on the first and the second of November because that’s the only time during the year that the skies will open and let our dead come and visit,” she said.

“We always have to have the bottle of alcohol because it always goes, so, you never know what it can be, it can be Presidente, Mezcal and Tequila. And the food you always see the arroz, mole, chile en nogada and taquitos, all the antojitos.”

An important part of Dia de Muertos is the pan de muertos, which Galindo said has been changed by different generations and depending on the area in Mexico there will be several different types.

Brownsville Chef Celia Galindo, of Gourmet Central by Cel, explains the history and seven levels of a Mexican Day of the Dead Altar a tradition kept during the celebration of Día de los Muertos to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“As the years went by, different generations started making their representation of bread and the top is the head, the sides are the bones and the circle is the body,” she said.

“So, they say that after you die, this is what you become and it’s round because the round it’s the soul, and if it’s round it can’t go anywhere, that’s why it’s eternal.”

When it comes to the history of the bread, Galindo said it goes back all the way to the Mayas and Aztecs who would kill people and use their blood to add it on the bread, creating el pan de muerto.

“They noticed that in Mesopotamia they would make this bread out of amaranth and they would mix it and would put sugar on it and they would add the blood from the people they took their heart out, they would add it to the bread,” she said.

A closer view of pan de muerto, bread of the dead, prepared by Brownsville Chef Celia Galindo, of Gourmet Central by Cel, in celebration of Día de los Muertos. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“So they thought, if they are eating the blood in the bread in representation of the heart, why don’t we make a bread that has to do with de pan de muerto and they stopped killing people and believe it or not they came out with the bread and they would cover it out with red sugar instead of blood.”