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Diving Deep into Member Culture

In an effort to better understand our member culture, the staff decided to take time to learn about the upcoming holiday, El Dia de los Muertos.

Here at MAF, we feel it is important for us to connect with our members on a deeper level. In gaining a better understanding of where they are coming from, we can help them better reach their goals. With a majority of our members being of Latin American descent, we felt there was no better way to strengthen this connection than to celebrate one of the most loved holidays of that region: El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The holiday is practiced in many Latin American countries and most festively celebrated in Mexico.

I had learned about the holiday in grade school but upon doing research for a staff presentation, I learned so much more. The reasoning behind the occasion was really great, beautiful even.

The thought behind those who celebrate the holiday is that death is only another part of life and shouldn’t be mourned but celebrated as your loved ones have in a sense graduated from this stage in life to the next. El Dia de los Muertos is the one day a year that our loved ones are allowed to return from their eternal slumber and spend time to celebrate the reunion with their living loved ones. Much of the decor may be seen as morbid or macabre to those unfamiliar with the holiday with the skulls, skeletons, alters, and cemetery visits, but this is due to a difference in cultural understanding.

We wanted our office’s Dia de los Muertos decorations to be as authentic as possible so we visited a store in the heart of the Mission District called Casa Bonampak, which ships its products from Mexico. We special ordered Papel Picado from Mexico, a traditional decorative streamer used for all types of festive celebrations. It included the MAF symbol and was made with the traditional chisels. Tracie, one of the store’s employees was able to assist in gathering the appropriate decorations for the occasion.

One of the most notable aspects of El Dia de los Muertos is the sugar skulls. We decided to buy blank skulls from the store and have the MAF staff decorate them. They were made in Mexico by a man who used clay molds that had been handed down to him for many generations. Before we began decorating, I gave a brief presentation on the holiday to the entire staff, so that everyone would have a better understanding of what the decorations meant.

The sugar skulls are representative of the loved one they are gifted to and the size of them is meant to represent the age of that person. The traditional way of decorating the sugar skulls, or calaveras de azucar, is not easy, and we learned that the hard way! Putting in the effort of decorating the skull shows dedication to the person you are gifting it to, whether that person is alive or has passed.

The skeletons, or clacas, are always seen as whimsical by families rather than sad. They are meant to represent the spirits that are happy to be able to see their loved ones again. As someone with a few relatives who have passed, I admire the idea of thinking happily of them, rather than mourning them.

Families also create altars where they leave offerings of food and gifts from the living in order to feed the spirits after their long journey from death to the world of the living. My favorite tradition is placing marigolds all over the altars and grave stones, sometimes leading from the cemeteries to homes. The sweet smell is said to be strong enough to bring the spirits back and they can follow the smell to the homes of their living loved ones.

The whimsy, joy, and love displayed on this holiday is really something to be appreciated. Our office completely transformed once we finished putting up all the decorations. The hope is to create a positive and trusting environment for our members in every Lending Circle formation, financial management training class and every conversation they have with our staff. Making these reflections enables us to see the role MAF plays in the long arc of each member’s life as we acknowledge and celebrate their past while also watching them build their own brighter futures.