Tattoos in Latin American Culture

bird tattoo -

Carlos’s second tattoo

I don’t have a single tattoo, and while I have nothing against them, it’s a good thing I never got one. Impulsive as I tend to be, and with passions that change over time, the tattoo I would have wanted at 18 years old is not one I would have been happy with today. At times I have drawn a design on myself with permanent marker (usually on my wrist) to see how it would look, and even if I love it, by the end of the day, I’m ready to wash it off. If I ever get one, maybe it would be something functional, like a “to do” list, or a Harry Potter reference, perhaps a favorite Lotería card, but for now I’m happy being ink-free.

Carlos on the other hand has two tattoos and has been planning on a third. The first one he got was my name on his back – his mother still doesn’t know about it, (unless she discovered this blog.) … She lived with us at the time Carlos got it and it was awkward to see him as a grown man, making sure he didn’t have his shirt off around his mother lest she find out. Apparently his older brother got a tattoo years ago and it earned him a good slap in the face when he showed her.

I’ve asked Carlos before, “Why do you get tattoos?” – because each individual has different reasons. Aside from liking the way they look, he’s realized that part of it is a sort of rebellion for him. His mother always had strict expectations for Carlos that dictated everything about how he live his life – some of those expectations being illogical, unfair, impossible, and burdensome. Getting tattoos is one way he began to claim his independence – more so an internal message to himself than an outward message to her, since, like I said, she still doesn’t even know about the tattoos.

The second tattoo Carlos got is of a pre-Columbian bird symbol, a reminder of his roots.

I love both his tattoos, and more importantly, he does too, but they haven’t been without problems.

When we traveled back to El Salvador, at one point Carlos wanted to renew his DUI, (which is a form of Salvadoran identification, not a “Driving Under the Influence.”) At DUI Centro (which is sort of like the Department of Motor Vehicles) you have to state whether you have tattoos as part of the process to get your ID. If they don’t believe you, they have you remove your shirt for inspection.

Having a tattoo in El Salvador can carry a heavy stigma and cause suspicion from law enforcement due to the history of gangs and their love of ink. Gang members themselves may also target you if they suspect you’re from a different gang.

Apparently, not only is there a stigma in Latin America because of gangs, but this has caused problems for Latino immigrants to the United States who have been denied visas, permanent residency and citizenship just because of their tattoos.

Here are some quotes from people on having tattoos in El Salvador:

“My friend’s first time going to El Salvador, he had tattoos on his arms and some gang members on the streets saw him and even followed him to his abuela’s house. Although the tattoos weren’t gang related, the gang members associated the tats with some other gang they didn’t know. They threatened him and said he had to pay “rent” and not to try and do anything funny. Every 20 minutes, the same red car came by and stop in front of the house which obviously meant someone was keeping an eye on him. He had to sneak out of the house that night and stay at another relatives house.”Amanda F., Trip Advisor

“If you’re of Salvadoran descent…you should definitely take care to cover them. There’s a huge difference between a white girl with tattoos and a Latino in ES. Many companies won’t even hire someone with even one tattoo here, that’s how deep the preconceived notion of tats are.”travel82bug, Trip Advisor

“I have one that I can conceal which I got when I was 18. When my mother saw it ten years later she stormed out and I had to chase after her to then hear a one hour lecture on how I have ruined my body, made my self look like a criminal, only gang members have tattoos in El Salvador, blah blah blah… She’s more accepting now that both her daughters have small hidden tattoos and both of her Australian son-in-laws have them too. As respect for her, and because of the stigma I would probably not get another one though. And when I took my husband to El Salvador last year I made him cover the tattoos on his arms and chest. Now I am a mother I think I might get upset too when/if my baby boy gets one, even if it is a beautiful one… I made him so perfectly beautiful. I understand my own mother now.”Lamden, Facebook

“My husband got his mother’s middle name instead of her first name on his arm because her first name has an ‘M’ in it. He won’t get our daughters name either because of the ‘M.’ The cantón where he’s from has a lot of 18 [18th street] gang members so to put an ‘M’ on himself would be a death wish.”Josie Iraheta, Facebook

“I have 3 tattoos that I got latter in my life, and when I went back to ES to visit my parents, my dad asked me to cover them, because his co-workers and friends would be put off by them. I got upset but honored his request out of respect. I wasn’t treated different by anyone else because of my ink, and I look like your normal average middle age woman when I cover them. But I want to get one by a Salvadorian artist if I go back to ES.”LadyAmalthea, Facebook

The good news is that in recent years, there has been a strong, organized movement to change perceptions of tattoos in El Salvador and in other parts of Latin America. At the time of this writing, almost a dozen tattoo parlors are listed for San Salvador in the Páginas Amarillas.

Do you have a tattoo? Have you experienced discrimination from strangers, friends or family in El Salvador or elsewhere? Share in comments!

Pon el huevo en el agua


Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. If you participated in Spanish Friday on your own blog, leave your link in comments. Scroll down for English translation!

Tenemos varias tradiciones por comenzar el año nuevo pero este año Carlos me presentó a una nueva. Después de hablar por telefono con su hermana, Carlos me dijo que quería enseñarme algo que algunas personas hacen en El Salvador. Sacó un huevo del refrigerador, llenó un vaso con agua, y los dejó en la mesa para que pudieran llegar a temperatura ambiente.

“¿Pero qué es eso?” le pregunté.
“Es una manera en que uno puede predecir que viene en el año nuevo. Después de romper el huevo en el agua, la parte blanca del huevo hace formas.”

Le pregunté a Carlos, “¿Cómo se llama esta tradición?”
“Espera”, me dijo y mandó un mensaje de texto a su hermana para preguntar.
Un minuto más tarde, su teléfono sonó.
“¿Qué dijo?” le pregunté. “¿Cómo se llama la tradición?”
“Simplemente se llama ‘Pon el huevo en el agua'”, respondió Carlos. (Lo cual me hizo reír por unos minutos).

Cuando estaban a temperatura ambiente, Carlos rompió el huevo en el agua.


Y esperamos.

Y esperamos.


Hasta que por fin…


Pienso que parece al volcán de San Salvador. Ojalá significa que vamos a visitarlo este año.

Image source: Wikipedia author, Xtremesv

Image source: Wikipedia author, Xtremesv


We have several traditions to start the new year but this year Carlos introduced me to a new one. After talking on the phone with his sister, Carlos told me he wanted to show me something that some people do in El Salvador. He took an egg from the fridge, filled a glass with water, and then left them on the table to come to room temperature.

“But what is that?” I asked.
“It’s a way to predict what will come in the new year. After breaking the egg into the water, the white of the egg makes shapes.”

“What is the tradition called?” I asked.
“Hold on,” he said and sent a text message to his sister to ask.
A minute later, his phone rang.
“What did she say?” I asked. “What’s the tradition called?”
“It’s just called ‘Put the egg in the water,'” Carlos said, (Which made ​​me laugh for a few minutes.)

When they were at room temperature, Carlos broke the egg into the water.

Then we waited.

And waited.

Until finally…

I think it looks like the San Salvador volcano. Hopefully this means we’ll visit this year.

Ofrendas and Changing Beliefs


Today has been a busy day since Día de los Muertos is also my youngest son’s birthday. We’ve been celebrating with him and preparing to celebrate again with family tomorrow, but I also took time to set up our ofrenda over the past couple days.

This year marks a turning point for me culturally because I included many of my own loved ones on our ofrenda. Last year I actually added my paternal grandfather, but I did so hesitantly.

I say “hesitantly” because as much as I admire the holiday and feel it’s a good way to remember Carlos’s loved ones, I hadn’t felt comfortable remembering my own loved ones. Originally I thought, well, this is a Catholic holiday and being that my father’s side of the family is Jewish and my mother’s side of the family is Protestant, it just doesn’t make sense to include my family. However, with each passing year I realized that my hesitance was not truly about the mixing of religions – my hesitance was actually an Anglo-American belief so deeply ingrained that it was difficult for me to recognize – and that belief is that remembering loved ones is something painful, sad, fearful and unpleasant.

When I added my paternal grandfather to the ofrenda last year, it wasn’t an easy thing. I chose my favorite photo of him, one I took myself when I was probably no older than eight. I still remember the moment I took it. He gave me the camera, a Kodak Instamatic, I think it was. He showed me how to load the film, snap a photo, and he set me free. I ran around my grandparents’ house in New York photographing everything. At one point I followed my grandpa out to the driveway. He was wearing one of his signature newsboy caps. “Hey Grandpa,” I said, “Let me take your picture.” He smiled down at me – that is the photo I put on the altar. I added Corn Flakes, the cereal he used to eat every morning, a little trumpet to represent his love of big band music, and a dreidel because he was Jewish.

While I experienced sadness at first, that sadness lifted and I began to experience the holiday as it’s meant to be celebrated. My boys asked me questions about the altar, and I had the opportunity to share stories with them about my grandfather which felt really good.

This year as I set up the altar, I realized that my attitude toward remembering loved ones had changed and I now felt comfortable including my great-grandmothers. As they did last year, the boys asked questions about photos and items on the altar. I was more than happy to tell them stories, the good memories of so many people I was blessed to have known.


Related Links:

Altar 2010
Altar 2011
Altar 2012

How to Make a Día de los Muertos Nicho

Do-it-Yourself Frida Kahlo Nicho

As a member of Lowe’s Creative Ideas Network I received gift cards from Lowe’s in order to purchase supplies to complete projects. All opinions are my own.

October is my favorite time of year, not just because it’s autumn, (which is my favorite season), but because this is the time of year when all kinds of creative Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) crafts and products start to pop up all over the place in preparation for the November holiday.

For Día de los Muertos, many people in Latin America create an ofrenda, or altar, to honor their deceased loved ones, so I knew I wanted to create something along those lines.

While walking around Lowe’s to brainstorm ideas, I walked past the wood moulding and noticed how the crown corners looked like little houses when turned the wrong way and this reminded me of the nichos I used to make. Nichos are a beautiful Latin American folk art which incorporate mixed media in the style of a shadow box and often serve as a religious altar. Because I already keep photos of our deceased loved ones on a permanent altar of sorts, I decided to make a nicho to honor the iconic Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo.

How to make a Frida Kahlo nicho

mini-papel picado,  Frida Kahlo nicho

Frida Kahlo nicho for Día de los Muertos

If you want to make a Día de los Muertos nicho, follow the directions below to get started now!

Día de los Muertos Nicho

You need:

1 large crown corner (wood moulding)
wood glue
3/8 x 4 x 24 inch pine craft board
3/4 in. x 1 in. brass hinges
2 cabinet knobs
craft paints and brushes
hand saw
small hammer
1/16 drill bit
3/16 drill bit
miniature screwdrivers
measuring tape
safety glasses
decorations of your choosing
small photo of deceased person you’re honoring
battery operated candles


1. Remove stickers from the wood. Lightly sand to remove stickiness if needed.

2. Carefully knock out triangular corner supports inside the corner crown.

Frida Kahlo nicho how-to

3. Sand the corner crown to remove glue and rough edges.

4. Cut the craft board so you have two 7 1/2 inch pieces. The third piece set aside for another project.


5. One 7 1/2 inch piece will be the bottom of the nicho. The other 7 1/2 inch piece should be cut into two equal pieces measuring 3 3/4 inch – These will be the doors of the nicho. Sand these pieces.

6. Measure and pre-drill holes on doors and sides of nicho for the tiny screws that came with the hinges. (I pre-drilled these with a 1/16 bit and used my Rockwell 3RILL, which is my new favorite tool. Full disclosure: Rockwell gave the drill to me to use on my Lowe’s projects.)

Also drill holes to attach the cabinet knobs – I used a 3/16 drill bit for those.


7. Paint pieces desired colors. Allow to dry. (Sand lightly for a slightly weathered look.)

8. Screw the knobs on the doors through the 3/16 holes you drilled. (Depending on the knobs you bought, you may prefer to find shorter bolts than the ones that came with the knob due to the width of the wood.)


9. Use a mini-screwdriver to attach the hinges to doors and then doors to nicho where you have pre-drilled holes.

10. Use wood glue to attach the bottom piece to the bottom of the nicho. Allow to dry.

11. Place photo, battery operated candles (real candles absolutely not advised!) and other decorations inside. Display on a shelf or attach a picture hanger to the back for wall display.

Do-it-Yourself Frida Kahlo Nicho

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Celebrating Día de los Difuntos

Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. If you participated in Spanish Friday on your own blog, leave your link in comments. English translation is below!

Este año no pensé que ibamos a tener una ofrenda por Día de los Muertos. Dos años pasados, sin realizar que los salvadoreños no celebran Día de los Muertos igual que los mexicanos, hice una ofrenda para el papá de Carlos. Carlos agradeció el gesto pero ponía algo triste y esto no fue mi intención. El problema fue que Carlos no estaba acostumbrado tener una ofrenda porque en El Salvador no se hace eso.

Mientras que los mexicanos llaman el día “Día de los Muertos” y celebran la muerte, abrazan la muerte, aún se ríen de ella – los salvadoreños llaman el día “Día de los Difuntos” y lo consideran un día de recordar sus queridos fallecidos en una manera mucho más sombría.

El año pasado, no queriendo repetir mi error, no tenía previsto hacer una ofrenda, pero mis hijos me dijeron que les gustó la tradición y querian tener una. Entonces, hicimos una ofrenda por nuestro perro que se murió.

Este año no tenía planes por hacer una ofrenda otra vez, pero Carlos me dijo que ya se siente comodo en tener una ofrenda con sus queridos fallecidos. Entonces, nuestra ofrenda incluye el papá de Carlos, la abuela de Carlos, el abuelo de Carlos, (que se murió sólo una mes atrás), mi abuelo y dos perros.

Hay demasiados detalles en la ofrenda por explicar, pero les voy a explicar un poco. Tal vez ustedes pueden buscar los artículos en la foto que menciono.

El papá de Carlos, (“Don Max”) le gustó mucho el casamiento – un plato hecho de arroz y frijoles. Por eso, hay arroz y frijoles. También tuvo un camión pick-up, y estaba muy orgulloso de él. El papá de Carlos era un entrenador de fútbol y le gustaba echar chile en su comida, (algo raro por un salvadoreño, pero algo que le gusta a Carlos también.) Don Max no era muy religoso pero era super dedicado a San Antonio.

Mi abuelo tampoco era muy religoso, pero identificó como judío. Le gustó la música “Big Band” y se comió Corn Flakes cada mañana.

Hay una historia sobre el abuelo de Carlos. “Papá Milo” era muy bueno por nadar y a veces cruzó el Río Lempa nadando para traer grandes bolsas de maíz para su familia. El abuelo de Carlos también fue el alcalde de un pueblo de Chalatenango, y casi siempre andaba con sombrero de vaquero.

La abuela de Carlos se llamaba “Mamá Juana” y era una mujer muy dulce. Ella tuvo diez hijos, y le encantaban las flores. Yo recuerdo que a veces Mamá Juana, en la manera de muchas salvadoreñas del pueblo, usaba un delantal encima de su vestido, aunque no estaba cocinando.

¿Hiciste una ofrenda tú? Quién estás recordando?


This year I didn’t think we’d have an altar for Day of the Dead. Two years ago, without realizing that Salvadorans don’t celebrate Day of the Dead the same way Mexicans do, I made an altar for Carlos’s father. Carlos appreciated the gesture but it made him kind of sad, which was not my intention. The problem was that Carlos wasn’t used to having an altar because Salvadorans don’t make them.

While Mexicans call the day “Día de los Muertos” and celebrate death, embrace death, and even laugh at death – Salvadorans call the day “Día de los Difuntos” and consider it a day to remember your passed loved ones in a much more somber way.

Last year, not wanting to repeat my mistake, I didn’t have plans to make an altar, but my boys told me they liked the tradition and wanted to have one. So, we made an altar to one of our dogs which had died.

This year, again I didn’t have plans to make an altar, but Carlos told me he feels more comfortable now to have an altar with his passed loved ones. So, this year we have an altar which includes Carlos’s father, Carlos’s grandmother, Carlos’s grandfather, (who died only a month ago), my grandfather, and two dogs.

There are too many details to explain them all, but I will explain the altar to you a little. Maybe you can find the items I’ll mention in the photo.

The father of Carlos, (“Don Max”) really liked casamiento – a dish made from rice and beans. For that reason, there are rice and beans. He also had a pick-up truck which he was very proud of. Carlos’s father was a football coach and he liked to put chile pepper on his food, (kind of rare for a Salvadoran, but something Carlos also likes to do.) Don Max wasn’t very religious but he was super dedicated to Saint Anthony.

My grandfather wasn’t very religious either, but he identified as Jewish. He liked Big Band music and ate Corn Flakes every morning.

There’s a story about Carlos’s grandfather. “Papá Milo” was really good at swimming and sometimes he would swim across the Lempa River to bring big bags of corn to his family. Carlos’s grandfather was also the mayor of a town in Chalatenango and almost always wore a cowboy hat.

Carlos’s grandmother was called “Mamá Juana” and was a really sweet woman. She had ten children and she loved flowers. I remember that sometimes Mamá Juana, in the way of many Salvadoran women from the countryside, used to wear an apron over her dress, even though she wasn’t cooking.

Did you make an ofrenda? Who are you remembering?

La Llorona coming to televisions across the United States

Do you know the Latin American folktale (or is it true?) called La Llorona? (The Weeping Woman.)

For those not familiar, here is the story of La Llorona.

Although several variations exist, the basic story tells of a beautiful woman by the name of Maria killing her children by drowning them in order to be with the man that she loved. The man would not have her, which devastated her. She would not take no for an answer, so he slit her throat and threw her body in a lake in Mexico. Challenged at the gates of heaven as to the whereabouts of her children, she is not permitted to enter the afterlife until she has found them. Maria is forced to wander the Earth for all eternity, searching in vain for her drowned offspring, with her constant weeping giving her the name “La Llorona”.

In some versions of this tale and legend, La Llorona will kidnap wandering children who resemble her missing children, or children who disobey their parents. People who claim to have seen her say she appears at night or in the late evenings from rivers or oceans in Mexico. Some believe that those who hear the wails of La Llorona are marked for death, similar to the Gaelic banshee legend. She is said to cry “Ay, mis hijos!” which translates to “Oh, my children!

Function of the story in society

Typically, the legend serves as a cautionary tale on several levels. Parents will warn their children that bad behavior will cause La Llorona to abduct them, and that being outside after dark will result in her visitation. The tale also warns young women not to be enticed by status, wealth, material goods, or by men who make declarations of love or lavish promises.

– Source: Wikipedia.

Well, this Friday’s episode of Grimm is about La Llorona. The show Grimm is an American TV drama series which is described as “a cop drama—with a twist… a dark and fantastical project about a world in which characters inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales exist.”

This clip features Grimm stars Bitsie Tulloch (Juliette Silverton), David Giuntoli (Nick Burkhardt), Russell Hornsby (Hank Griffin.) Guests cast in this episode include Bertila Damas as “Pilar” and David Barrera as “Luis Alvarez.”

Kate del Castillo (of “La Reina del Sur” fame), is also in this episode!

Grimm airs Fridays at 9 pm ET on NBC. This particular episode will air on NBC on Friday, October 26th at 9 pm ET. There will also be special airings, in Spanish on Telemundo at 11:35 pm ET on October 29th and in English on mun2 at 1 am ET on Saturday, October 27th.

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll watch because this kind of stuff freaks me out. I will probably have a week’s worth of pesadillas just from watching these videos here. Do you think you’ll tune in?

The Cone of Fire – El Cono de Fuego

Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. If you participated in Spanish Friday on your own blog, leave your link in comments. English translation is below!

El otro fin de semana, Carlos tenía dolor de oido, sentía que tenía fluido por dentro, y me pidió una cura. Empecé a enumerar los remedios caseros, pero Carlos no estaba entusiasmado por ninguno de ellos. Entonces me acordé de una pintura de Carmen Lomas Garza llamado Ventosa, que muestra un cono hecho de periódico con fuego en el oído de alguien. Le conté a Carlos y quiso hacerlo.

Hice un poco de investigación y luego decidimos probarlo. La primera vez lo hicimos en el comedor y eso era un gran error. El suelo en nuestra casa es alfombra y algunas cenizas empezaron a caer, creando un peligro de incendio. Cuando el fuego en el cono creció me dio pánico y no sabía cómo apagarlo. Abrí la puerta de atrás y lo tiré al patio.

Después Carlos me dijo que no se sentía mejor y unas horas más tarde quería tratar otra vez. Esta vez lo hicimos en la bañera, pero una vez más cuando el fuego creció un poco fuera de control, me ponía nerviosa. Yo creo que este remedio casero es demasiado peligroso por casas en los Estados Unidos, la mayoría que son hechas de puras cosas inflamables.

Al final, Carlos dijo que el “cono de fuego”, como lo llamamos, realmente no le ayudaba. Intenté uno de los primeros remedios que había mencionado originalmente – gotitas de aceite de oliva en el oído. Ahora se siente mejor.

¿Tienes experiencia con el “cono de fuego”? Funciona para ti?


The other weekend, Carlos had an earache – he felt like he had fluid in his ear and he asked me for a cure. I started to list home remedies I knew of, but Carlos wasn’t enthusiastic about any of them. Then I remembered a Carmen Lomas Garza painting called Ventosa, which shows a newspaper cone of fire in someone’s ear. I told Carlos about it and he wanted to do it.

I did a little research and then decided to try it. The first time we did it in the dining room which was a big mistake. The flooring is carpet in our house and some ash began to fall, creating a fire hazard. When the fire grew bigger on the cone I panicked and didn’t know how to put it out. I unlocked the back door and threw it onto the patio.

Afterward Carlos told me he wasn’t feeling better and a few hours later he wanted to try again. This time we did it in the bathtub, but again when the fire grew a little out of control, I got nervous. I think this home remedy is too dangerous for homes in the United States, which are made ​​of purely flammable things.

In the end, Carlos said the “cone of fire”, as we call it, didn’t really help. I tried one of the first remedies that I had originally mentioned – drops of olive oil in the ear. Now he feels better.

Do you have experience with the “cone of fire?” – Does it work for you?