Centered on the top third tier of the altar, a copper frame displays a photo of the late Maria Antonia Medina surrounded by several candles, nopales, a Mexican flag, bright colored tissue flowers and two sombreros.

“Grandma Toni, she gifted me my cultural,” said her granddaughter LaLisa Hernandez, wearing a yellow and aqua headpiece as she admires her grandmother's photo above the ofrenda or altar.

Hernandez said she looked forward to her grandmother Toni's Christmas gifts every year, which included the Loteria game.

“Those were the only Spanish words I knew,” she said. 

Grandma Toni, born on June 13, 1909, had a second grade education and was a migrant farmworker who would make the trek to the northern states, such as Michigan each spring, to pick fruit and vegetables. Medina lived in Taylor, Texas and had 13 children with her husband. She moved to Corpus Christi from Taylor, Texas after falling in love with the city while vacationing with family.

Grandma Toni for many years had a vendor booth Grandma Toni's Gifts at the Trade Center where she sold Mexican curios.

“She was very creative, she would make ribbons, listones,” Hernandez said. “I would hang out with her at the Trade Center.”

Grandma Toni was a political advocate and many political figures knew her very well. She was treasurer for the Nueces County senior citizen organization. Hernandez recalls one Thanksgiving where all of the family was sitting down for dinner when the phone rang.

“One of the kids got up to answer the phone and he says, 'it's Rosalynn Carter.' It was our Thanksgiving meal and everyone just stopped,” Hernandez said. “It was during Jimmy Carter's campaign. My grandmother was extremely political and she always called all of her grandchildren to remind them to vote.”

La ofrenda 

To celebrate and honor Grandma Toni, Hernandez adorned a three-tier altar for Dia de los Muertos. The first or bottom tier represents her grandmother's past. The first tier displayed her grandmother's luggage with Greyhound bus tags and possessions of her last trip because she enjoyed traveling, especially to one of her favorite destinations – Guadalajara, Mexico.

It also included a calavera with a guitar to show her grandmother's love for Mariachi music.

“As soon as we would arrive in Mexico, we would go to the town square to listen to Mariachi music,” Hernandez recalled.

The second tier of the altar continued with colorful orange mums and white and black candles. The second tier illustrated her grandmother's present as if she were still here.

On one corner, a ceramic plate was filled with barbacoba with a serrano pepper, Grandma Toni's favorite food for Sunday breakfast. This tier also had her prayer book and Holy water. In the center of the tier were several rolling pins her grandmother used to roll out tortillas along with ceramic jaras or pitchers and matching cups.

Granddaughter Diane Cordova of Las Vegas remembers sitting in her Grandma Toni's dining room and pictures her flattening out tortilla dough between her palms.

“I was sitting in the kitchen dining room and she had given me paper and pencil for me to doodle. She stopped with flour on her hands and drew a flamenco dancer,” Cordova said. “I remember being in awe and it was no big deal for her, she went back making tortillas. She was such an artist.”

Cordova had a special connection with her grandmother because she was born in her grandmother's house.

“My DNA is there right in the living room,” she said laughing.

Tier three is designed with an arc of pink, purple, red, yellow and blue tissue flowers with Grandma Toni's picture in the center with a painted Mexican flag in the background with candles and cactus. The arc of tier three symbolizes the portal where she is able to cross back and forth through her spiritual journey.

“She is surrounded by all the things she loves when she comes down to visit us,” Hernandez said. “That's keeping her alive.”

Hernandez said the tradition of the altars should include four elements: Fire represented by candles, Water represented by Holy water, Earth represented by flowers and air represented by the smell of incense. 

Dia de los Muertos tradition

Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, in particular the Central and South regions, and by people of Mexican ancestry living in other places, especially the United States. It is acknowledged internationally in many other cultures. The multi-day holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey.

It is particularly celebrated in Mexico where the day is a public holiday. Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer. Gradually, it was associated with October 31, November 1 and November 2 to coincide with All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using calaveras, aztec marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves.

Hernandez's niece Laurena Rene Pardo, 23, said Grandma Toni was already in the nursing home when she would visit her and enjoyed singing to her “This Little Light of Mine.”

“When I would sing to her she would clap and clap and clap,” Pardo recalled. “She loved it.”

Some of Grandma Toni's conversations included dream interpretations or libros de los suenos and traditions of crema de camote, fertile foods to have children and her favorite sandalwood scent soap for good luck.

Medina died at the age of 95 on February 4, 2005.

“It rained so hard that day, the sky fell out. All her tears were washed out that day....she always dreamed really big, her culture was front and center of what she was,” Hernandez said. “Just because my grandmother is gone doesn't mean she is not my confidant. She was my companera.”