PATTERSON — Co-workers often pause for a second look before scurrying past what could seem a dark display on the desk of Elsa Parchmont Zapata
Elsa Parchmont Zapata of Patter-son, who grew up in Mexico, stands next to an altar set up for Day of the Dead, a time set aside in Mexico for honoring departed loved ones.
Like a lot of Americans, the 33-year-old Zapata
does love Halloween and adores Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
"It's very important to a lot of people," Zapata
As a result, the shadowboxes filled with bony musicians and even "The Nightmare Before Christmas" hero, Jack Skellington, remind Zapata
of the warm culture and family that surrounded her in her former home: Mexico.
Zapata was born in Morgan City, but moved to Mexico, her mother's native country, at 2.
family continued living in Ciudad del Carmen, a small island near the Yucatan Peninsula, until Zapata
"I've always liked the little shadowboxes depicting the dead doing everyday things," she
received the decorations from an aunt living in Mexico City, where the shadowboxes are more popular than in other parts of Mexico.
"They're kind of whimsical," she
The dancing, singing, partying skeletons help families deal with the grief of losing loved ones by showing the dead enjoying themselves in the afterlife, Zapata
Upon arriving in the U.S., Zapata
had no knowledge of Halloween, but quickly embraced the American holiday, and later "The Nightmare Before Christmas," for their playful resemblance to Day of the Dead.
Zapata, who earned a bachelor's degree from Nicholls State University, worked in advertising production at The Courier from 1998 to summer 2008.
cubicle reflected a keen interest in Halloween and Day of the Dead.
Now working as a graphic designer for the Amelia Belle Casino in Morgan City, she displays her merry skeletons to new co-workers and friends.
Zapata's well-known enthusiasm for Halloween traces its roots back to her
youth in Ciudad del Carmen, where she
formed years' worth of memories involving Day of the Dead festivities.
Day of the Dead represents a blend of customs stemming from the indigenous people of Mexico, such as the Maya and Aztec, and those brought to the Americas by Spanish Christians.
As a result, Mexicans honor their dead on the Roman Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but incorporate traditions springing from Mexico's Indian cultures.
remembers visiting the cemetery with her
family to help clean relatives' graves in preparation for Day of the Dead.
Zapata's family would clear the graves of weeds and wash and repaint tombs, in the same way many south Louisiana residents prepare for All Saints Day.
But a lot of other residents of the tiny island took their grave-cleaning a step further in accordance with old customs, distracting the young Zapata from the cleaning efforts made by her
mother and aunt.
"While they were busy scrubbing, I would watch some people open their family's tombs and they would take out and wash the bones/remains before putting them back," Zapata
"I never thought it was something weird.
It was normal to me."
On Nov. 1, Zapata
family would visit relatives, usually her
aunts or friends of her
parents, to pray for deceased loved ones, then enjoy large meals.
The meals, which required long hours of preparation by women, often included a tamale pie-type dish called "Pibi pollo" and a type of tamale made from beans, pork and other ingredients.
The family would often enjoy candied pumpkin and various nut brittles, as well as a special treat known as "Pan de Muerto" or Day of the Dead bread.
compares Pan de Muerto to south Louisiana's King Cakes, made only at a certain time of year to celebrate a specific holiday.
Day of the Dead events would usually stretch for hours at a time, forming "all-day boucherie-like gatherings" centered on remembering the departed through feasting, praying and visiting with family and friends, Zapata
also remembers another vital part of the festivities: the lavish altars dedicated to honoring the departed.
said her mother, Elsa Yolanda Zapata de Parchmont, who grew up on Isla Mujeres, another island off the Yucatan Peninsula, remembers neighbors decorating their altars with other traditional adornments: fresh flowers, crepe-paper cutouts and tall candles held within glasses imprinted with Catholic saints.
"At the base of the altar, some people would burn myrrh, and the neighbors would gather and pray the rosary," Zapata
"Every time I smell myrrh, it always brings back memories of going to these gatherings."
mother largely stopped celebrating Day of the Dead after moving to Patterson, their Mexican traditions becoming lost in the surrounding American culture.
They might light a candle and say a prayer for a departed loved one on Nov. 1 or on the anniversary of his
death, but they left the elaborate, time-consuming Day of the Dead festivities behind in Mexico.
"As a kid, you don't really appreciate what it means to attend such celebrations, the richness and mystique of your culture," Zapata
hopes to recoup some of that colorful culture by taking more time to honor Day of the Dead.
"I hope that one of these years I will actually take the time to do a traditional altar," she