2017-11-08 / Featured / News

La Milpa hosts Day of the Dead celebration


Seven-year-old Jesús Garcia, top, played drums for the Aztec dance group Tlaltlacayolotl, right, when they performed at La Milpa’s Día de los Muertos celebration last week. 
PHOTOS BY ASH DANIEL Seven-year-old Jesús Garcia, top, played drums for the Aztec dance group Tlaltlacayolotl, right, when they performed at La Milpa’s Día de los Muertos celebration last week. PHOTOS BY ASH DANIEL It’s after dusk on Hull Street Road, and the trio of dancers on La Milpa’s patio have fallen into a pattern.

Dressed in the traditional garb of their ancestors, the Aztec dance group Tlaltlacayolotl repeatedly crouches, gallops, then turns to the beat of the drums. Rattles jangle at their ankles; the long feathers in their headdresses bounce in time.

They, and the crowd assembled to watch them, are here to celebrate Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that translates as the Day of the Dead. Through festivities and food, the three-day holiday honors friends and loved ones who are no longer among the living. Far from being somber or scary, the event is a celebration, recognizing death as part of life’s continuum.

La Milpa, a Mexican restaurant and market just west of Chippenham Parkway, has held Día de los Muertos events since it opened 17 years ago.

“It’s like a celebration of life,” explains Monica Chavez, who co-owns La Milpa with her partner, Martin Gonzalez. “Every corner of Mexico celebrates Day of the Dead. It’s one of the most important traditions.”

Día de los Muertos combines indigenous Aztec rituals with elements of Catholicism, which was brought to Mexico by Spanish conquistadors. Once held at the beginning of the summer, the holiday gradually became associated with the Christian triduum of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. Both traditions are observed Oct. 31 through Nov. 2.

For Día de los Muertos, the dead are awakened from their eternal sleep to engage in celebrations with their loved ones. The living welcome the dead by presenting food and other items that the deceased enjoyed during their lifetimes.

“We have the belief that [loved ones] come to have dinner with us on this special evening,” says Chavez, who grew up about 130 miles southeast of Mexico City in Puebla. “We set a table with all the dishes and drinks and stuff they liked in life. The idea is that they are coming with us to take [part] in spirit.”

Altars are also fashioned, featuring food and other items that the dead appreciated in life. Water, salt, food, candles, images of the deceased, religious icons, sugar skulls – decorated skulls made from compressed sugar – and special bread are placed on the altars. For Gonzalez, co-owner of La Milpa, this year’s Día de los Muertos has special meaning.

“My mother just passed away a few days ago,” he says, standing outside of his restaurant in a black puffy jacket. “This is how we remember. In our tradition, the mother is the center of everything. The mother teaches us how to cook, how to behave.”

To commemorate the event, Gonzalez and Chavez’ restaurant served special dishes, including stewed rabbit, Mexican hot chocolate, the traditional Mexican sauce mole, and pan de Muertos – a sweet roll that means bread of the dead.

Among those in attendance were Goochland’s David and Connie James. A videographer by trade, David enjoys documenting the region’s Latino population, and has attended La Milpa’s Día de los Muertos celebrations for the past decade.

“This is such a great way to get to know the cultures of other countries,” Connie says. “Now that so many Hispanics are living here in Richmond, it’s something that you have to do to get along.”

David concurs: “To get along, you have to learn each other’s cultures. Martin [Gonzalez] is all about art and culture.”

Henrico resident Celia Nitchman was also in attendance.

“I am a Mexican, and I’m very, very proud. The dancing is very good,” says Nitchman, who is part Aztec and grew up in Mexico City. She made her own special offering at home to honor her late father.

“My father, in life, loved tequila,” she says. “On this day, I put a bottle [out] for an offering.”

Mayela Heifetz, originally from Nicaragua, saw similar ceremonies years ago during a trip to Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico.

“We love it because it keeps tradition, and it shares the tradition with the American people,” says Heifetz, who lives in Henrico. “It’s amazing what this restaurant has done in order to promote the culture and traditions of Mexico. [Gonzalez] put a lot of effort into doing this.”

Though Gonzalez’ mother, Margarita, may no longer be alive, she’s still a presence at La Milpa’s Día de los Muertos festivities. On the restaurant’s altar, next to the apples, baked goods, peaches and tamales, is her framed portrait.

“If you remember them,” Chavez says, “they will never die.” ¦

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