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Ancient Celebration, New Beginning

Author: Karen Fernau
Issue: October, 2016, Page 106
Photos by Garrett Cook

Artist Gennaro Garcia; his wife, Briseida Silva; and their daughter, Frida, gather around a Day of the Dead altar that pays homage to their ancestors. The couple will use this altar to celebrate the memories of their loved ones and to teach Frida about her family culture and history.
The Mexican Holiday That Honors Death is Given Fresh Life by One Valley Family

For Phoenix-based artist Gennaro Garcia and his
close-knit family, “el Día de los Muertos,” also known as Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday that pays remembrance to friends and relatives who have passed, is about more than colorful costumes or enjoying food and drink with family. It’s about honoring their Hispanic culture and their ancestors and, most of all, ensuring that the memories of their loved ones and the lessons learned from them never disappear. 

“We do everything we can in a single day to honor and celebrate the lives of those no longer with us,” says Gennaro, a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. “It’s a day of joy, not sadness,” he adds.

Colorful skulls, or “calaveras,” are the most recognizable symbol of the holiday. They are represented in artwork, masks, sugar skulls and other sweet treats.
This year, Gennaro and his wife, Briseida Silva, a social worker who helps immigrant children, are committed to teaching their 6-year-old daughter, Frida, about the holiday, one that in the U.S. often gets wrongly tangled up with the ghoulish traditions of Halloween because of its many death-related aspects and the fact that it falls on Nov. 2. She’s finally old enough to learn.

“Many people believe that el Día de los Muertos is a scary celebration because of the skulls and skeletons, but for us it’s a festive day with a long history,” says Gennaro, who immigrated from Mexico to Arizona almost two decades ago with hopes of a better life.

He and his wife will teach Frida about the holiday’s history, which can be traced back nearly 3,000 years to Central America and the ancient Aztecs.
They’ll teach her about its tenacity. Nearly 500 years ago, the Spanish conquistadors tried but failed to extinguish a ritual they wrongly believed mocked death. They’ll teach her that although the day eventually fused with Catholicism’s All Souls Day, el Día de los Muertos stays true to the Aztec belief that death is a continuation of life—not an ending but a new beginning. They will teach her that as children they celebrated with their families at the cemetery by feasting, drinking and dancing to mariachi bands.

“It was like a huge block party at the cemetery. We want to fill her mind with our stories, with our traditions,” notes Gennaro.

All of their ancestors are buried in Mexico, so instead the family celebrates around an altar built in the living room of their Ahwatukee home. It is adorned with traditional ofrendas, or symbolic offerings of love. Intricately decorated sugar skulls, representing the vitality of life, sit adjacent to wooden bowls of chili-spiked mescal, a favorite of Gennaro’s paternal grandfather, Luis Garcia Michel, a rancher who fought in the Mexican Revolution. A glass of water awaits souls that arrive thirsty and tired.

Gennaro prepares the “chicharrón” and squash blossoms for the quesadillas. Making the food helps him feel closer to his ancestors. “Cooking has been the greatest connection in my family,” he says. “Ever since I can remember, we have lived around the kitchen. It is the same for my parents and their families.”
Tradition also calls for the placement of yellow “cempazuchitls,” or Mexican marigolds. According to Aztec beliefs, the marigold was sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead. The flowers’ strong scent is thought to help guide the returning souls of the departed back to Earth. A wood mariachi band, hand-carved by Gennaro and painted by his father, Luciano Garcia Michel, anchors the base of the altar. Everything is arranged around photographs—in this case, faded black-and-white portraits—of the deceased.

“We will use the photos to remind us about their lives, to tell funny stories about them, to tell Frida what their lives were like. It is a day for storytelling,” explains Gennaro. “It’s a way to keep their memories alive.”

The family begins the day cooking dishes to nourish the souls of their ancestors. They cook blue corn quesadillas stuffed with cheese and “chicharrón” (fried pork rinds) and topped with epazote (a pungent Mexican herb). The meal was a favorite of grandfather Luis. For Rosa Avendaño, Gennaro’s Salvadorian grandmother on his mother’s side, they cook pupusas, thick corn flour tortillas stuffed with cheese and zucchini flowers.

For the rest of the family’s late relatives, including Rosa’s husband, Adolfo Avendaño, Adolfo’s father of the same name, and Luis’ many brothers, they serve “pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead, a sweet, round loaf sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with knobs and strips of dough that represent bones, skulls and crosses.

Once the food is cooked, the family places it, as well as the deceased’s favorite drink and other personal mementos, on a makeshift altar for the spirits they believe return to Earth for a single day every year to protect their loved ones from evil.

Along with preparing the offerings, the family, which typically includes grandparents, Briseida’s sister and other relatives, works elbow-to-elbow to cook traditional Mexican dishes that they’ll eat at a celebratory dinner. 

Frida joins in on the food preparations by dusting the special “pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead, with cinnamon.
While Frida paints the pan de muerto with butter and dusts it with cinnamon, Gennaro rolls out the blue corn masa for quesadillas. Briseida assists both as she makes the pupusas. Dinner consists of an entrée grilled by Gennaro and a host of side dishes prepared by Briseida. The menu changes every year, but it always includes an abundance of traditional flavors and ingredients. “We cook for our ancestors but also for ourselves,” Briseida notes. “We cook outside and inside, blending the old and the new.”

In addition to foods for both the spirits and the living, the holiday is an explosion of art, with psychedelic-colored skulls; dancing, laughing skeletons; and faces painted with bright, vivid images. The skeletons, dressed in festive outfits, are called “calacas.” Their lighthearted forms draw on the Mexican belief that no dead soul should be thought of with sadness. Skulls, the most widely known symbol of the Day of the Dead, are “calaveras.” Featured on everything from colorful 3-D sugar treats and decorated cookies to masks and face designs, skulls represent not only death but rebirth.

Before the evening ends, Gennaro paints Frida’s face with a fanciful calavera design. A flower crown completes the look. “I paint her face happy, not scary,” he says. “That’s what we want the holiday to be for her. It’s a time to celebrate, not mourn.”

Gennaro adds the Mexican herb epazote to one of his late grandfather’s favorite dishes, blue corn quesadillas.

Typically built in houses or cemeteries, altars honor the deceased, who are represented in photographs. Families decorate the altars with foods and beverages, candles, “papel picado” (tissue paper banners), flowers, and art and other mementos that remind them of their ancestors. Gennaro added mariachis to his family’s altar to honor his grandfather’s love of the music genre.
A mariachi angel decorates the family altar.

Gennaro paints Frida’s face with a colorful calavera design.
Face painting is a modern-day variant of traditional Day of the Dead masks, which are common in Mexico.

Gennaro Garcia’s Blue Corn Quesadillas with Squash Blossoms and Chicharrón

1 pound of blue corn dough, often called masa
½ pound Oaxaca cheese or queso asadero, cut in thin strips
½ pounds of squash blossom flowers, washed, stems and pistils removed
1 pound of chicharrón, or fried pork rinds, cut into thin slices
Epazote leaves, to taste
1 avocado, peeled, pit removed and cut into thin slices
Salt to taste

To make tortillas, place dough onto lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, 1-2 minutes. Wrap in plastic and allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to a few hours. Divide dough into 12 equal parts. Roll each part into a ball, then place the balls in a plastic bag to prevent drying. If dough gets too dry, add a little water. Using a 6-inch tortilla press, flatten balls into tortillas. If a tortilla press is not available, place a ball between two sheets of plastic wrap. Flatten slightly with the palm of your hand and then roll with a rolling pin.

Divide ingredients for fillings (cheese, squash blossom flowers, chicharrón and epazote) into 12 equal portions. Heat a comal or flat griddle over low heat. When hot, after about 4 minutes, add the first tortilla and cook about 1 minute. Flip and cook another 1 minute. Add ingredients. Fold the tortilla in half and cook for 2-3 minutes per side side or until cheese melts. Remove and garnish with avocado slices. Salt to taste and serve with salsa. Repeat for remaining dough balls and ingredients.

Serves 4-6
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