Grieving For Papa, Grieving With Others: My Día De Muertos Diary – Worldcrunch

When the author’s father died suddenly two years ago in Colombia, the Catholic Church mourning rituals offered little comfort. Two weeks ago, by chance in Mexico City for the annual Día De Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, she finally discovered how these ancient celebratory rituals for the departed can help face the pain, and find true peace.
Mexico’s Día de Muertos, a “magical celebration of death”
In my native country of Colombia, when someone dies, the process of mourning is almost always turned over to the Catholic Church. It starts with the wake, set in aseptic shiny salons, surrounded by dozens of other identical rooms, each family has to welcome people who come to give their respects for days, amid religious symbols and white flower crowns. The lonely rituals are interrupted only by the occasional unrequested words of advice from friends or clergy about the right way to mourn.
For my first 22 years, I’d observed all of this with mild irritation from a distance at the few wakes and funerals I’d attended. Then, one Easter week, the family crying desperately in the center of the cold room was my own.
I lost my dad, who was a perfectly healthy recently retired physical education teacher, to a cardiorespiratory stroke while he was sleeping. He was just 65.
My foggy memory from those horrid days included comments from supposed well-wishers like “Stop crying, God knows what he’s doing,” “It was God’s will” or “maybe God is trying to teach you something.” The misplaced advice made me feel isolated and lost. Since I was young, I had no longer considered myself a Catholic; but even more so I wanted desperately for my dad to be the center of his own funeral, and did what I could by placing photos over the cold brown coffin, playing his favorite songs while he was lowered in his grave, and sharing a song my brother and I wrote on his online memorial.
I never imagined grief could feel so lonely when you are a non-religious person in a Catholic country like Colombia. Even the flower crowns and visits from friends were overshadowed by the religious emphasis and obligations, such as praying nine nights in a row and repeatedly being encouraged to cross myself. They were demands of a religion I didn’t want to be part of, with the unspoken message that this was the only possible guidance on how to grieve for my dad.
Altars in Mexico City on Día de Muertos
Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra
Fast forward two and a half years to the final week of October 2021. I’d arrived in Mexico City for a Latin American journalism conference, and after landing realized my visit happened to coincide with Día de Muertos. These “Day of the Dead” festivities are celebrated between October 30 and November 2, in which Mexicans welcome with an altar their deceased loved ones whom they believe come to visit the living on these dates each year. In this festivity of Aztec origins, Catholic rituals of popular tradition intertwine, a smooth syncretizing of cultures and faiths.
I’d heard of Día de Muertos, and from a distance, it had seemed colorful and attractive, and the movie Coco had given a fascinating glimpse of how its fantastic visuals and music could create a magical celebration of death. Still, this was the first time I’d experienced it myself, and still facing the unresolved grieving for my father.
I arrived for the first Halloween parties, just a few days before Día de Muertos. Between Tamarindo Smirnoff’s sweetly-spicy burning flavor, young Mexicans started telling the stories of their deceased in front of the host’s altar. Candles smoothly twinkled over a small table while yellow petals framed the photographs of loved ones. A small cross above and a tequila bottle, of the favorite brand of the deceased, lay on the table. One by one, the friends each shared memories of a relative they’d lost including a high school friend that had died in a car accident.
The combination of joy and death had always seemed so alien to me, yet at that party I felt it for the very first time. Mexican journalist and friend Paul Antoine Matos gave me his first book, Embellecedores de Huesos (“Beautifiers of Bones”) in which he narrates the unique custom of Pomuch town citizens of cleaning their deceased bones year by year to somehow bring them back. One of the locals of Pomuch said to him “The environment during these days is festive and joyful, because you feel that your family is by your side.” I felt the warm and slightly overwhelming reality of being part of a huge group of people all grieving someone at the same time. It is an intense throat-tightening cocktail of emotions that I can only describe as a national hug.
It was so far from the awkward silences I knew back at home when someone asked about my parents, and I had to answer that my papa passed away. Far from the heavy religious judgment when people assumed I was angry at God because my dad had died. Here I was listening to people my age remembering and honoring the memory of those they lost while having some shots to definitively break the taboos I’d been surrounded by since losing my father.
The tall buildings and old houses of the busy metropolis of Mexico City during this time of the year are colored yellow and lilac. The orange-toned flower represents life and the sun, and the purple refers to loss and mourning. Both are Cempasúchil, the flower of the dead according to the Aztecs, as it’s thought that its petals are able to keep the heat of the sun and shelter the dead while their aroma guides their soul’s return.
The altars are everywhere, from museums to bars. One of the first ones I saw was in The Museum of Memory and Tolerance, where the message “phobias that kill, the colors of grief” was displayed by the Pride flag. Then I visited the massive altar in the center of Coyoacán in which, under the big bell of the central plaza, candles, skulls, flowers and photographs shared the space with messages for femicide victims “not even one more killed,” for migrants “for all those that died trying to cross our borders” and for journalists “for the journalists that have died reporting.”
My mind was transported to my homeland, 1,900 miles to the south. I cried, sheltered by the loud masses and the dim lights of the altar. Colombia, a country where defending human rights represents a mortal danger and more than 1,200 social activists have been killed after believing in a badly implemented peace treaty in 2016. Mexico has its own plagues, like currently being the country where more journalists are killed in the world. Though not for a direct loved one, my grief was irrepressible.
“Catrinas” participate in a silent procession in memory of the victims of femicide, on the Día de Muertos in Saltillo, Mexico. 02 November 2021.
Miguel Sierra/EFE/ZUMA
Mexico and Colombia share a history of colonization, massacres and social mobilization. Two countries that lead the rates of environmental and human rights defenders killings. Two countries where gender-based violence is a pandemic. In Colombia, in 2019, every day 95 girls denounced sexual violence. In Mexico from January to May 2021, there have been 423 femicides. I cried for them, I cried from a deeply engrained grief I knew I had but never before came pouring out. A peacefulness and solemnity I didn’t know could come with grief.
I was transported to 2016 when I marched for peace in Colombia with my dad. We all had so much hope in the treaties that were being negotiated. We all deserved a different country. My dad taught me to doubt politicians, to truly care about the well-being of others, to give generously, and listen patiently, even if the world is not always kind in return. I remember the Club Colombia beer he drink with lunch and the way he silently cried sometimes when music invaded him, regardless of the genre. He was a sensitive and curious soul. In love with this world and always teaching me about it. I wish we had walked between the trees of Mexico City together. I wish I didn’t have to write this piece.
I dried my tears and kept exploring the packed streets of Frida Kahlo’s neighborhood, slightly terrified by the people with Pennywise and Chucky costumes. It was fascinating to see Mexicans and tourists of all ages impersonating superheroes, witches and catrinas. The omnipresent skeleton representation of a woman is the death that comes to visit. It is a symbol with origins in a reinterpretation of the Aztecs Goddess of death by José Guadalupe Posada, who wanted to communicate with the satirical attire that no matter how rich or poor you are, we will all end up as skeletons.
Ecuadorian, Guatemalan and Colombian journalists, as well as other Latinxs, we all felt so lucky to have experienced a conference in Mexico city on these particular dates. We even participated in the rituals that showcased the exceptional relationship that Mexicans have with death. On our last day together, one of the Mexican delegates at the conference offered to share his altar with those of us who had lost someone.
During the conference, we got the news a dear journalist for all of us had suddenly lost her boyfriend. She was not able to travel to Mexico, but we all felt her close to our hearts. Even if she was back in Venezuela, we put her boyfriend’s photo on the altar. It shared the place of honor with a picture of my dad, who died two-and-a-half years ago; with the photo of my Ecuadorian friend’s mama, who left nine years ago, with the drawings of my Colombian friend’s papa and best friend, each departed just a few months ago.
In the land of death and the Día de Muertos celebration, there is no place for hierarchies or differences in the right to grieve depending on how old or recent your loss is. In Colombia, the masses to commemorate my papa’s death become less frequent with time, and the only thing mentioned now is his name.
That 30th of October on a white Altar with a few candles, our missed ones shared a mezcal bottle and the Yucatan region Pibipollo, tamale-like chicken pastry, cooked in a hole under the earth, “a metaphor of burial” as my friend Matos described it. Mexico was hosting our Latin American ancestors for a feast on a celebration where the bridge stands between life and death, a bridge called remembrance, as the song in Coco successfully imprinted on us.
Hugging, and letting out tears of happy nostalgia, we remembered their favorite songs, their happiest moments, their favorite outfits and even their very human defects. We felt embraced both by them and by each other. Mexico was giving me a sense of collective grief and accompaniment I never imagined possible. Mexico was healing a part of my heart that was angry at the world for not listening to my desperate scream for community and empathy. Grief acquired a surprising new taste of gratitude.
“It is a beautiful gesture of gratitude that the Mexicans have towards those who have gone before us. From them, we inherit the land, culture, education and life” fellow Colombian Julián de Zubiría Samper wrote in a recent article in El Espectador about Día de Muertos. “What this millenary custom shows us is that we have to thank those who gave us life and speak again with those who left sooner than expected.”
I remember one of my worst memories of grieving back at home when a priest gave a eulogy centered on my father’s duty to repent and accompany a God he didn’t really adore. Now, instead, this ancient Mexican rite was giving my dad a singular place of importance, not that of a priest’s pawn or a subject of God.
“The Day of the Dead is the possibility that we all have to return to the world of the living, to reunite with our people, to resurrect,” Matos wrote in his recent book. Despite being a Catholic country as well, the eclecticism of its beautiful syncretic traditions rooted in precolonial cosmovisions was allowing my dad to come back for something like a real-life chat with me as we shared a few Mezcales and a shot of tequila (though I know he’d prefer a beer!).
I don’t know if something inside has healed permanently or if it was more like a breath of fresh air before going back to feeling the same isolation when I return to Bogotà. What I do have now is a place where I can sit once a year and feel closer to the signs Papa keeps sending me. I’m not sure in which city, but from now on my dad will always have an altar he can come to visit. Who knows, we might get to share his favorite Colombian beer next time.
Driven by the desire to offer an experience rooted in their terroir, more and more star chefs are turning into farmers. They have the same goal: to keep up with the times by offering local and sustainable produce.
Local vegetables straight from French chef Emmanuel Renaut’s garden
PARIS – Bee balm, savory, marjoram … All around the terrace overlooking the valley, dozens and dozens of aromatic herbs and vegetables grow despite the first frosts of autumn. Before entering the harshness of winter, Emmanuel Renaut rubs sweet woodruff between his hands and invites others to do the same. “Can you feel the power of this fragrance? I use it in both my sweet and savory dishes.” The sweet woodruff mix is one of the many that Renaut incorporates daily into the kitchen of Flocon de Sel, his three-star Michelin restaurant perched at 1,300 meters, just above the village of Megève, in the French Alps.
Since opening in 2008, Renaut has been cultivating his land with patience and unconditional love. “For some people, having a vegetable garden is a fashion statement. Here, it is the relationship with nature that dictates things. It’s a process that took a long time to set up. To grow, you have to be patient and accept that at certain times, like in winter, it’s harder.”
Like Renaut, a growing number of chefs are combining their work with that of farmers, gardeners, beekeepers or winemakers. All over France, gastronomy and its ambassadors are tuning into one of the major challenges of the century: using nature in a sustainable way, sourcing products locally to reduce the impact of human activity on the planet. And they want to create a revived culinary tradition, rooted in its territories, far from the fixed and globalist cuisine offered in the great Parisian institutions.
For some, this approach, which requires a strong capacity to adapt to the daily rhythm of the seasons, is a life project. By leaving Paris — its worldliness and the stability of their first restaurant Haï Kaï — chef Amélie Darvas and her associate Gaby Benicio wanted to break with a model that had become unsustainable.
After selling their establishment, which had helped them build a good reputation, they went on vacation and fell under the spell of an old presbytery nestled on a hillside in Vailhan, in France’s southern region of Hérault. That’s where they set up Äponem, a starred restaurant with only 14 seats.
“It was the place that chose us,” says Gaby, who is also an oenologist. “We live in a quasi-monastic way, in symbiosis with what the land offers us and we want to perpetuate this little utopia to stay focused and live in the moment.”
This natural approach might mean more uncertainty when it comes to what produce will be available, but it also boosts the imagination of cooks who choose to commit. Alain Passard, three-starred Parisian chef at L’Arpège, was one of the pioneers. He turned his entire menu vegetarian at the end of the 20th century and the idea of the vegetable garden took shape in 2002: “When I opened the door to vegetables more than 20 years ago, I worked with excellent farmers, but I wanted to go further. Seeing vegetables grow leads to creativity.”
Now, Passard owns seven hectares of cultivated land in the western regions of Sarthe, Eure and Mont-Saint-Michel Bay. He also offers vegetable baskets for delivery and has enough demand to consider doubling his production capacity. Even though he has introduced meat and fish in his menu again, it is in his plots of land that he still draws the necessary inspiration for his art every day, punctuated by the tempo of nature: “I feel an immense pleasure when I find a product that I haven’t had in my hands for months because, here, we work from a simple principle: using the four seasons and our five senses. And when I put my vegetables in a pot, I see my gardens. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”
But owning your own land or becoming a farmer can’t be improvised. Christophe Hay, who earned his first two stars in Montlivault in the central Loir-et-Cher region, is embarking on a new project that requires growing a much larger plot of land. Fleur de Loire, a restaurant coupled with a luxury hotel that will open next June on the banks of the Loire, will double its table capacity for guests. The vegetable garden will relocate to a one-and-a-half-hectare plot, forcing the chef to create an agricultural business: “From now on, I am also a farmer and I am proud of it!” Thanks to a conservatory of old seeds, the future vegetable garden will also be a laboratory with the objective of reintroducing forgotten varieties, such as the rose apple or the white bean Comtesse de Chambord. By using these seeds that have been left behind for decades, these new farmers propose alternative solutions to soil impoverishment.
Flocon de Sel’s garden
Official Instagram account
Stéphanie Le Quellec, a two-star chef with La Scène in Paris, has set up a vegetable garden in the Loir-et-Cher region to grow the plants she wants to resurrect: “I wanted to give honor to old varieties, such as the purple celery from Tours or the ovoid yellow beet from Les Barres. The varieties we have learned to grow up to now are sterilized species that force growers to buy new plants every year and exhaust the land.” Still in its infancy, this project will provide all of the garnishes for the dishes in her gourmet restaurant by next spring.

This ambition has taken a long time to materialize and remains subject to many uncertainties, particularly when it comes to the climate. This is one of the most complex aspects to manage for chefs. Instead of planning everything, by directing their supplies with providers they know, they are now more willing to let themselves be guided by the daily offerings of their garden. An impromptu stroll allows Renaut to bring back a basket of mushrooms, which he uses that same evening for a tart.
“You can’t anticipate everything; you have to know how to evolve with the weather,” says the chef, who actively participates in the entire process, from turning over the soil to harvesting and sowing. “Usually we plant in early May, but it rained a lot this year. The land was flooded and we had to wait. We’re always surprised by what the harvest will give us, like the abundance of peas and green beans last summer, for example.”
Renaut is in the process of buying new land higher up above Flocon de Sel, but he knows he’ll have to wait another three to five years for the land to produce a variety of vegetables and herbs. For now, only potatoes grow in this very rocky soil that requires special attention.
At Äponem, Darvas and her gardener have also opted for a gentle method: “We work with living soil and we don’t treat it. Sometimes it works, sometimes we have problems, like with slugs at the moment. We remove them every day by hand. We deal with them without hurting the environment.”

In this hilly landscape, agriculture is practiced in terraces, a complex method to manage, especially with this new approach. “We do things differently from the old farmers, so it’s not always easy to fit into a community,” admits Benicio.
Here, you won’t see neatly trimmed rows without wild growth. The principle is to accompany nature and the richness of its biodiversity rather than trying to tame it at all costs. The change is radical and acceptance is not yet widespread.
“A good terroir is first and foremost an ecosystem with insects, batrachians [amphibians], reptiles and birds of prey,” says Alain Passard. “You also have to give the soil time to rest. When you put out celery root for months on end, it exhausts it. You have to give it something else so that it regenerates and you learn from each season.”
The process also has a cost. Often much higher than staying in touch with suppliers who do all this work for them. “This activity represents a significant investment,” says the chef at L’Arpège. “It’s the purchase of land, the employment of a dozen employees, equipment … But in reality it’s priceless because the result is so great. It allows us to eat with confidence and to stimulate my creativity.”
There is no turning back. Christophe Hay has chosen to join an association of young European farmers: “I would like to push them toward polyculture and encourage them to integrate more biodiversity in the fields. I have the feeling that the new generations are looking to work in this direction.”
For her part, Stéphanie Le Quellec is looking beyond the vegetable garden: “One of my dreams is to have a vineyard to make wine. I already have a few regions in mind, but I’ll also have to find a winemaker with whom to build a relationship to turn my ideas into a reality.”
Chef Emmanuel Renaut working in his vineyards
Official Instagram account
Renaut became a winemaker four years ago when he bought vineyards from the Trosset family in Savoie near his home. He now owns 39 acres of Mondeuse, a grape variety that reflects the richness of the surrounding mountain terroir. Last year, Renaut harvested his first crop and plans to label the 1,500 bottles of the 2021 vintage.

“I have my winemaker’s license, but I’m still learning,” says the chef, who is about to publish a book on Savoyard wines. “It is Louis [Trosset] who still does everything and you have to observe him carefully. He keeps the memory of the handiwork and knows details that ensure the quality of the wine. He is one of the very last to use an old-fashioned press.”
It’s a serious investment. Renaut is already planning to close his restaurant for two weeks next year at harvest time. Eventually, he may even trade in his knives for pruning shears. “It’s not going to happen right away, but I want to enjoy time in a different way and I like this activity.” For these new explorers of French gastronomy, creating a healthy and high-level diet is worth some risk-taking.
When the author’s father died suddenly two years ago in Colombia, the Catholic Church mourning rituals offered little comfort. Two weeks ago, by chance in Mexico City for the annual Día De Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, she finally discovered how these ancient celebratory rituals for the departed can help face the pain, and find true peace.
Driven by the desire to offer an experience rooted in their terroir, more and more star chefs are turning into farmers. They have the same goal: to keep up with the times by offering local and sustainable produce.
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