It’s 3 pm on an early November day and the sky is the colour of wet cement as Marycarmen Aguilera greets guests arriving at her home in Sydney’s northwest for her annual Mexican Day of the Dead feast.
As each guest files through the front door, they pass a chalkboard framed with flowers and a lurid pink and a blue skull inscribed with the words ‘El Dia de Los Muertos – Bienvenidos’.
Despite the fact that the theme of death is everywhere inside the home Mary shares with husband Raymond Said and children Nicholas, and Dominic, the mood is bright and jovial.
“In Mexico, we don’t just talk about life, we talk about death … because death is part of the cycle of life,” says Marycarmen, who is devoutly spiritual and wants her sons to understand Mexican customs and culture.
Marycarmen met Sydney-born Ray when they were both working as accountants for a Telco in the megalopolis of Mexico City in 1998. One year later, Marycarmen migrated to Australia and, in 2006, after feeling homesick for the flavours of her homeland, the couple opened Fireworks Foods, an import business selling the hard-to-find Mexican ingredients she craved.
When SBS visits, joining Mary in honouring her ancestors are Puerto-Rican born chef, composer and author Rafael Nazario, and Ana M Alonso, of Mexico – both of whom she first met as customers at Fireworks Foods – as well as long-term friends Peter Wych and Jacqui Keyte.
“El Dia de los Muertos is a time to look back and a time to look forward. It’s when we remember the deceased and guide their souls back to be with us,” says Ana, who migrated to Australia seven years ago.
As well as being draped with neon-bright bunting with cut-out calacas and catarinas (male and female skeletons), the North Rocks home is laid out with sugar skulls, flowers, candles and incense – all designed to lure the spirits of her loved ones back to be with her family for the festivities.
As Marycarmen puts the finishing touches on the altar dedicated to deceased relatives, she tries to keep her tears in check.
“Mexicans are very emotional people,” says Mary, her voice a rasp, as she lights a candle and lays out ofrenda [offerings] favoured by the dearly departed.
Mary says the altar is a reminder that “these people mattered … they will be missed and never forgotten”.
The elaborate altar is adorned with photographs of Marycarmen Aguilera’s younger brother, Francisco, who died suddenly at age 39, her beloved grandmother, Irene, who passed away aged 68, and her baby niece, Maria Jose, who lived for just three days.
Typically, the altars are adorned with ofrenda the dead enjoyed when they were alive. “My brother loved his tequila and my grandmother loved Mexican food and I present them with food and drink they loved to encourage them to come and join us … I know they are here with me now. I can feel it,” she whispers.
Back in the kitchen, which is painted in sunlight, the mood is again upbeat as all the guests raise a glass of tequila and toast to loved ones they have lost.
After a few raucous cheers, Marycarmen lifts the shuddering lid off a large pot of pozole (soup made from large corn kernels) and starts to ladle out its rich, creamy contents.
“I can hear my grandmother whispering in my ear when I make pozole. I remember sitting beside her and watching how she made it and I try to do it the same way because I want to pass that on to my children,” says Marycarmen.
Preparations for this El Dia de los Muertos began in earnest the day before the big event, held annually on November 1 and 2, as Rafael, daughter Olivia, and Ana cheerfully worked alongside Marycarmen in her kitchen. (This year, Day of the Dead falls on Wednesday November 1.)
There’s not a hint of melancholy as they chat of their travels, recall their parents, their childhood and their memories of meeting each other.
As the day rolls on, the house fills with the heady aromas of chillies, cocoa and coriander and the clatter of pots and pans.
Rafael, busy sharpening a glistening blade he has unfurled from his knife bag, says no Day of the Dead feast is complete without the pan del Dia de los Muertos, the sweetened soft bread shaped like a bun and decorated with bone-like shapes. [Get Marycarmen's recipe here.]
“The bread is suggestive of bones and is iconic. It is to remind us that this is a feast where everybody – including the ancestors – are invited,” he says.
The dishes Marycarmen and her friends helped prepare are paraded into the dining room the next day: huge platters of arroz a la Mexicana (rice), bowls of silky black frijoles (beans), handmade corn tortillas, hunks of pollo con mole Poblano, tamalesand the ubiquitous pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread).
Rafael, who lived in Mexico for seven years, says Mexican culinary traditions are in the hands of the mothers and grandmothers who then bestow them to their children.
“Share a meal cooked by any Hispanic person and you will taste their inheritance; it’s an emotional link. In the West, we don’t talk about sex or death; we talk about real estate. Mexican culture is very rich … El Dia de los Muertos is one of many Mexican celebrations that acknowledges that death is part of life and that one cannot exist without the other,” he says.
Marycarmen’s husband Ray says he and his sons appreciate and benefit from the richness of his wife’s Mexican heritage.
“My sons are half-Mexican, I’m a closet Mexican and there are few places in the world where family and food is savoured as much. My children don’t really understand the magnitude of today’s celebration, but they do have a taste of what Mexico is like because that is a big part of our collective identity,” he says.
Photographs by Alan Benson
Each person can “puuch” or mash and mix their chosen garnishes in their bowl, then mop it all up with warm corn tortillas.
In Mexico, this sweet brioche will often be used to decorate the graves of loved ones who have passed away.
This Mexican chilli chocolate tart is a rich and decadent dessert. If you can’t find ancho chillies, mulato and pasilla chillies are the best substitutes. This is a sweet way to use chillies.