Heard on the Hill

Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ tradition very much alive on Capitol Hill

Offices display lively altars with vibrant colors and food for dead relatives

A Día de los Muertos altar is on display in the office of Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva on Capitol Hill on Monday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Marilyn Zepeda may have left Mexico, but she made sure to bring along a piece of its culture to the United States: vibrant “papel picado,” loaves of “Pan de Muerto” and photos of the dead.

The legislative correspondent for Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, who is himself the son of a Mexican immigrant, Zepeda has been in Washington, D.C., just over a year, and she’s already raising spirits around the office. After all, it’s almost the Day of the Dead, or “Día de Los Muertos.”

The Mexican tradition — brimming with lively altars, or “ofrendas,” that showcase brightly colored tissue paper and photos of deceased loved ones — is a multiday celebration for family and friends to honor the spirits of relatives.

The grub on display? That’s not for us mortals.

“The tradition is to offer food, candy, edible items that people in the afterlife liked,” Zepeda told HOH.

The ofrenda, which was welcomed by the congressman and his staff with “excitement,” greets visitors as they come through the front door. Whiffs of oranges and peanut butter follow suit.

Their altar pays homage to public figures like Latino American activist Cesar Chavez, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and the most recent additions: Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who died Oct. 17, and former House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr., who died Sunday.

But there's a place for personal loss too. Old photos of great-grandparents adorn the shrine, while another photo remembers a miscarriage.

“We honor all lives,” says Zepeda.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has an ofrenda on display in the Lincoln Room of the Capitol, where members of Congress can pass by and reflect on the lives of migrants who have died on their journey to the United States, said CHC communications director Maria Elena Pino.

The office of Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García hosts its own display offering spirited shades of green, blue and pink while colorful skulls watch over the fruit and Mexican candy — but not too much candy. “Congressional buildings have mice and we don’t want to attract them,” a spokesperson for the Illinois Democrat told HOH in an email.

The Día de Los Muertos celebration takes place from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2.

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