For Day of the Dead, a Calabazitas Squash Family Recipe From the Garden

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The Day of the Dead altar decorations and celebration—with family-favorite dishes like these calabazitas Mexicana—happened spontaneously, delighting and surprising José Germán-Gómez. This community activist is the founder of the New Jersey-based Northeast Earth Coalition, working to protect the environment and promote local sustainability and food security. His mission, vision and daily work is all about championing urban farming projects, community vegetable gardens and backyard food production.

Jose German-Gomez
Jose Germán-Gómez, founder

José, who was born in Puerto Rico and now lives in New Jersey, especially loves to work the land with Latinx groups. One of his favorites is a close-knit community of Mexican women who have been tending a community garden with him for seven years. José loves to show them how the jardín skills they use were pioneered by indigenous people across Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of the very same vegetables, fruits and herbs they grow today were also harvested by their forefathers and foremothers—who likely placed them on their own Day of the Dead altars.

”We garden with a lot of Mexican ancestral techniques. We start from seeds, many of which they bring with them or family members send from Mexico,” says José. “I have noticed that they feel a strong passion to grow herbs they use for medicine.” Herbs like papalo, which they use to help reduce swelling and heal stomach disorders. With a strong flavor that tastes something like cilantro, their fresh papalo also makes its way into their tacos, tamales and enchiladas, he says.

A Day of The Dead Celebration in the Garden

The Mexican women came together during harvest one fall day some years back to create a beautiful Day of the Dead altar and ceremony that José will never forget. ”It happened very naturally. There was no plan,” he marvels.

Day of the Dead Garden celebration
A group of Mexican women gardeners spontaneously came together during harvest to create a magical Day of the Dead Garden celebration, says José Germán-Gómez, founder of Northeast Earth Coalition.

”The women started putting things on the table. In a matter of seconds, the table was transformed into an altar. The table has three levels on it: heaven, earth, and purgatory. And everything they did to create it made beautiful sense, without them having a plan or even communicating while they were putting it together,” José says.

Day of the Dead Garden celebration
Bread, sweets, fruit and paper and fresh flowers brighten the Day of the Dead altar.

”It was natural and spontaneous. It was their lived experience. They brought pan de muerto. Sugar skulls. They brought tamales. Chilaquiles. We burned a special incense. We were also honoring the community gardens at the end of the harvest so they placed  a photo of Zapata on top of the altar, because he was a fighter for social and agricultural justice in Mexico. We had photos of loved ones, including my mother, who are departed. They sang songs spontaneously, all traditional and again, no planning. It just happened,” says Jose, still moved. ”There were so many beautiful paper flowers, and then we had storytelling.”

Day of the Dead Garden celebration
The altar for their Day of the Dead ofrendas was decorated with a photo of Mexican hero Zapata, who championed Mexican people’s agricultural rights to the land.
Elizabeth Valderrama 2
Elizabeth Valderrama

One of the traditional offerings served that Day of the Dead was a Mexican squash dish called calabazitas Mexicana. The plato was made by one of the gardeners, Elizabeth Valderrama, who is from Poza Rica, Veracruz, with fresh squash pulled from their community plot.

These calabazitas are a family recipe that Elizabeth learned from her grandmother and mother, Jose says. She told him that offering this dish makes her feel “connected to her past when she was living in Mexico and growing up, sharing time with her grandmother. Every time that she cooks the recipe reminds her of the old days. She honors all the loved ones who have departed already.”

Here is Elizabeth’s calabazitas Mexicana family-famous recipe, specially made as an ofrenda for the Northeast Earth Coalition’s Day of the Dead harvest celebration, in honor of her much-missed, much-loved mamá and abuelita—in this life and the next.

Ready to Make Elizabeth’s Calabazitas for Day of the Dead?

For Day of the Dead, a Calabazitas Squash Family Recipe From the Garden

5 from 1 vote
Recipe by Elizabeth Valderrama Cuisine: Mexicana


Prep time


Cooking time




  • 2 Tbsp 2 olive oil

  • 1/4 1/4 white onion, finely diced

  • 1 1 jalapeño, minced, deseeded for less heat

  • 1 clove 1 garlic, minced

  • 4 medium 4 calabazitas (small green Mexican zucchini or summer squash), diced

  • 1 1 tomato, large, (called jitomate in Mexico), finely diced

  • 1/2 tsp 1/2 salt, or to taste

  • 1/4 tsp 1/4 pepper, or to taste

  • 1/4 cup 1/4 cilantro or epazote, minced (optional)

  • 1/4 cup 1/4 hebra or Oaxaca cheese or crispy chicharrones (optional)


  • In a large and deep skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.
  • Add the onion and jalapeño. Cover the skillet and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, covered.
  • Add the diced zucchini, tomato, salt and pepper to taste. Stir. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the chopped cilantro or epazote if using.
  • Taste and add more salt or pepper, if needed.
  • Add hebra or Oaxaca cheese or crispy chicharrones before serving.
  • Serve—perhaps as a special ofrenda on Dia de Muerto for a loved one.


  • You can substitute regular green zucchini if you can’t find Mexican summer squash at a Latino grocery market.

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