In communities all around the world, preparing food and eating are at the heart of the experience of “being family”. Whether the large Thanksgiving dinners celebrated in the United States or the ritual gathering times celebrated with food in other countries, eating together is often an opportunity to remember connections — present ties as well as links to those who were with us here on earth for a time but who have now passed on to another dimension of life.
In her interview with the Veterans of Hope Project, painter and activist Nuong Van Dinh Tran talks about the importance of ancestors in Vietnamese tradition. She describes how the daughter-in-law in each family is charged with preparing special foods for the spirits of those who have passed on and arranging the meals in a beautiful fashion on an altar in an elevated place in the house.
“In each family there is a place, you can call it a sacred place, the honored place in the family. It has to be high up — maybe the second story or the third story. You have a special altar where you have pictures of your ancestors. I remember having the pictures of my great-great-grandparents from both sides, my mother’s side and my father’s side also. The anniversaries of their deaths are very important. The daughter-in-law of each family, the eldest, like my mother for example, has to take care of this altar. She has to memorize all of the dates of the anniversaries of the ancestors. There is a way of celebrating that anniversary by preparing special foods to offer to the ancestors. That I remember. The ancestor, to us, is very important. We respect our ancestors because they are the people who, because of them, we are on this earth. You have to be grateful for their existence before you. You always remember that.”
For Vietnamese people, as well as for many other Asians, Africans and indigenous people around the world, honoring our ancestors is a way of acknowledging that our lives, our strengths, our possibilities are, in many ways, due to the labors, the loves and the sacrifices of those who came before us. Our struggles are not new struggles and our pains are not new pains. Someone before us has walked part of our road already and they understand. And they help. As the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Han says, “We are the continuation of our ancestors.”
In our search for inspiration in our ongoing struggles for a more compassionate and just world, most of us recognize how important it is to cultivate and appreciate the support of friends, co-workers and others who are walking some part of the path alongside us. When we get tired, they carry the load. And when they lose their footing, we are nearby to keep them from falling. What we sometimes fail to recognize is that in addition to our companions who are alive, we are also constantly being helped and supported by those who have loved and cared for us but who may no longer be with us physically. They are our ancestors and they continue working, at the level of spirit, to lend us their blessings and help.
Thus it must have been that in the Freedom Movements of the 1960s — the southern movement led by African Americans, the Chicano Rights movement of the west and southwest; the movement for American Indian rights; the Women’s movement; the Peace movement — the ancestors of those struggles were in some way present. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; Mother Jones and Ida B. Wells Barnett; Emiliano Zapata, Carlos Bulosan and Sojourner Truth. In the same way, those of us continuing the work of urging our nation to its best and most democratic ideals, have Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Ella Baker, Lalo Delgado, John Biggers, Tom Feelings, Prathia Hall Wynn, Gloria Anzaldua, Jimmy Boggs, Cordell Reagon, Emma Tennayuca and so many others to guide and encourage us.
May we remember them and thank them and feed their spirits with song, with poetry, with dance and with SOUL FOOD — with cornbread and sweet potatoes; with beans a la charra and menudo; with natto and mugi miso soup; and with the warm tones of our lasting gratefulness.