Why Mexican Americans Make Atole on Día de los Muertos

Alicia Becerra
Alicia Becerra

Synonymous with sweater weather and based on flavor alone, atole will put your pumpkin-spice latte to shame. Let's hope we don't see atole become a gentrified trend on TikTok, like when "spa water" tried to appropriate agua frescas. Atole is more than just a delicious "wellness" drink waiting to turn trendy. For many Mexican Americans, atole is representative of nostalgia and a connection to the land — madre tierra. Cinnamon and corn are Indigenous sacred plant spirits to those of Mexican American heritage, reminding them of the hardworking hands of their abuelas and mothers who prepared this hot, milky drink with pride and intention. Atole, a warm corn-based drink, comes in many varieties that are culturally prepared in Mexico and throughout Central America. It's time to revive the significance of atole and understand how atole works as a sacred beverage of our ancestors. Next time you decide to snap a photo of that delicious atole for your Instagram followers, pause and remember how this drink is connecting you to elders of the past while you appreciate its rich flavors and meaning.

The process of preparing atole is a ritual itself. Traditionally prepared during Día de los Muertos to place on altars honoring our muertos, atole has become a vehicle to connect the underworld with the living. It's a drink considered as sacred as Sunday misa wine. Growing up, my father was raised in a family of fifteen, and he recalls that the times his mom would be able to make atole were treated as special occasions. If the family had some extra money to splurge on ingredients, atole was made. In my father's case, atole was a drink of luxury that still connects him to his mother. Now, it's a drink we place on our altars to honor my Abuela Sarita for her sacrifices. Stories similar to my father's are the reasons we find atole on altars as offerings when Día de los Muertos arrives. Day of the Dead isn't a scary time of the year — it's a time when we can connect with the souls of our perished loved ones and expect their supernatural visits to occur in our dreams and homes. Atole and Día de los Muertos are intimate ways Mexican Americans reconnect with their ancestral Indigenous roots and spiritual beliefs. By way of atole, we use this drink to celebrate our deceased loved ones instead of mourning them.

How Is Atole Traditionally Made and Prepared?

Atole is traditionally made and prepared using corn starch. There is a variety of flavors atole can be made as. The two most common flavors are vanilla and chocolate; however, note that chocolate atole is basically known as champurrado.

Atole is a very personalized drink that varies from immediate family customs to pueblos or regions of Mexico. There's no incorrect manner to make atole, as long as you have the main foundational ingredients of corn starch, cinnamon, brown cane sugar, and vanilla extract.

"I mix corn flour (masa harina), water, piloncillo, cinnamon, vanilla, and milk. I then heat the mixture while whisking it with a molinillo to create froth. When I make champurrado, I add anise and Mexican chocolate to the mix," Native American and Mexican American artist and baker Alicia Becerra of AliciasDelicias shares. "My favorite way is using the blue corn and toasting it in the cast-iron skillet, like my grandma [would]. Once toasted, I add water and stir like a mad woman because . . . nobody likes lumpy atole," Native American Mexican curandera Dr. Lisa Martinez says. Martinez further explains, "I usually add a little something to sweeten it, sometimes a little cinnamon or star anise, serve it up thick in a big mug, and add some milk."

What Is the Significance Behind Drinking Atole on Día de los Muertos?

Drinking atole on Día de los Muertos is a ritual popular among Mexican Americans. Día de los Muertos is a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed. It's rooted in the historical belief that we do not mourn the dead so that they can transition into the afterlife instead of worrying over those left on Earth. Atole is a traditional drink of many Mexican religious colonized holidays and a drink sacred to Indigenous Mexican heritage. Spanish colonizers saw an opportunity to capitalize off of it for church influence. The attachment of atole to Día de los Muertos was integrated by Catholic leaders to influence Indigenous rituals and customs with Catholicism.

How Is Atole Used as an Ofrenda on Día de los Muertos?

Atole is used as an ofrenda (offering) on Día de los Muertos as a way to nourish the ancestors. By providing the ancestors with atole and other food items, you're feeding their souls on Day of the Dead when they come to visit. It's also a way to give thanks and let your muertos (dead loved ones) know you appreciate them by placing it as an ofrenda. This act alone is a ritual we perform. Bruja and coowner of House of Intuition Marlene Vargas shares how she incorporates atole during Día de los Muertos."We feed them first before ourselves as we tell stories and memories of when they were here with us," Vargas says. "It does not just keep us bonded with them but also connects us closer to their spirit than when they were alive and here with us in human form. It is an undeniable spiritual connection that we feel and share together."

Martinez provides further encouragement: "Setting up an ofrenda is opening a doorway that our ancestors will walk through to be with us. They should be treated with the same honor and respect as they would receive if they walked through the doors of our homes when they were alive."

Whether you want to drop off atole at the burial site or place it on an altar, no matter the location, you can trust your ancestors know that atole is an offering for them. When making atole as an ofrenda, make the process very intentional. Ask for solitude in the kitchen while you prepare and cook it. Set an intention to your ancestors while making this sacred drink, then pour a cup for yourself and cups for as many ancestors as you wish to honor. Toast to their legacy, and sip in gratitude. This is a simple method you can perform as you begin incorporating atole as an ofrenda on Day of the Dead.

What Is the History Behind Food and Drink Ofrendas on Día de los Muertos?

The consumption of food for spirits might seem unconventional in American culture, but honoring your ancestors with food on Día de los Muertos is normalized in Mexican American culture. Preparing the favorite meals of our dead loved ones is an act of joy, love, and reclamation. However, feeding the spirits of the dead is a powerful way to bond with dead loved ones and ancestors. All food and drinking offerings are considered to be an honorable act to show appreciation to those who have left this realm.

"Atole in and of itself is magical. It is made of some of the most powerful ingredients used in spirituality and magic spells and imbibed and absorbed into our physical bodies as a nourishing drink," Vargas says. "The top three ingredients of cinnamon, corn (masa), and vanilla are all great choices for abundance, financial gain, and good luck. Now imagine sipping on a warm cup of that sweet hominy mixture while sitting in front of a powerful ofrenda or altar with your ancestors. It's powerful, and the energetic connection during this time is sacred and memorable every passing year."

Where Can You Buy Atole Drink?

I personally enjoy supporting street vendors and purchasing my atole from them or local neighborhood fundraisers selling atole. When I don't have the opportunity to come across any of those options, I enjoy buying atole at my local Latinx/e supermarket from La Monarca Bakery & Cafe. You can also buy atole at carnicerias (local butcher shops) or at small businesses and Latinx/e Mexican restaurants in your community. Shop small, and support small businesses as often as you can!

How to Create Your Atole Drink at Home

Let's say you're ready to make atole yourself, but you don't know where to begin. All the ingredients can be easily found at most grocery stores. Here's an easy Mexican recipe to begin making atole in your kitchen with your familia this Día de los Muertos!