Rosie Corona, right, is co-owner of Tres Coronas Bakery in Ontario. The store sells traditional sweets and pan de muerto for the Day of the Dead holiday in early November. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – Margarita Flores remembers the celebrations inside the cemeteries of her native Puebla, Mexico.

As October waned and November began, the graveyards would be covered in yellow flowers to remember dead relatives. The Day of the Dead is one of the most important holidays in Mexico. Although the holiday is set for Nov. 2 each year, the festivities kick off a few days prior and its reach has hit well beyond the country’s borders.

In the Treasure Valley, Four Rivers Cultural Center puts on an annual Day of the Dead celebration. This year’s event is this Saturday at the center’s Japanese Garden.

From 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., attendees are invited to celebrate with food, dancing, mariachi and a DJ. A room with kids’ activities will include face painting, flower-making, and sugar skulls for decorating.

Out on the patio, a bounce house and s’mores fire pit will be available, and prizes and loteria games will keep everyone busy.

“It’s a good way to celebrate the holiday or bring your family to learn something new,” said Summer Tilley, vice president of operations at Four Rivers Cultural Center.

In years past, Four Rivers displayed traditional Day of the Dead altars, but Tilley said the Harano Gallery, where the altars are usually exhibited, was overbooked this season. 

Inside Tres Coronas Bakery in Ontario, owner Rosie Corona rang up Flores at the cash register as they explained their families’ traditions.

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Each year on Nov. 1, Flores stops by the bakery to order pan de muerto – “bread of the dead” – a round loaf dusted with sugar and decorated with crossbones made of dough. The specialty item is made only for the occasion.

Baked goods such as pan de muerto and sugar skulls add to the festivities of a traditional Day of the Dead. (Contributed photo)

Corona’s husband’s family is from Michoacan. She explained that the altars usually display a photo of the dead along with an offering. Some families also take offerings to tombstones.

“They put whatever the person used to like when they were alive - the food they used to eat, the drinks they used to drink,” she said. “If they used to smoke, they take some cigarettes. If they used to drink beer, they take a beer.”

Corona said her family closes up shop for an hour or two that day and shares a meal to remember their loved ones.

In Mexico, parties dot the graveyards as families come to honor relatives, said Flores. Some people play music and set up a picnic.

Inside homes, dining tables are filled with food. Candles are everywhere and incense fills the air.

“According to our beliefs, the smell of the meal carries the food to the dead,” Flores said.

Angel Perez owns Ontario Mini Market on South Oregon Street. Perez said he knows when it’s that time of year again because his customers begin making special requests.

“People come in asking for guavas, fresh sugarcane, Mexican mandarins,” to use in their offerings, Perez said.

In Perez’s family, he said his mother honors her dead husband by cooking his favorite meals and baking her own pan de muerto.

He said the food is thrown out the next day because the belief in his family is that the dead visit around 3 a.m. on Nov. 2 and take with them the flavor of the meal, leaving it bland the next day.

For days before the actual holiday, Flores said, the living begin honoring the dead, placing photos and a glass of water and an offering to different people depending on the day.

Oct. 28 is dedicated to people who lost their lives in accidents. The 29th goes to victims of drowning, while the the 30th and 31st are for the souls in “limbo” – children who died without a baptism and the dead who have been forgotten.

The first of November commemorates children who’ve passed away.

In other cultures, death and dying are taboo topics.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” said Corona. “We have to celebrate the dead as if they were still alive.”

Read more stories about the Latino community in Malheur County:

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PHOTO GALLERY: Faces from the field

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: yadira@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377

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