The University of Texas at Austin
  • Día de los Muertos: Mexico's national holiday

    By Marjorie Smith
    Published: Oct. 26, 2009

    In the spirit of Halloween, the Office of Public Affairs is reintroducing some of its spookiest stories.

    Original run date: Oct. 30, 2006
    By Christian Clarke Casarez

    As night falls, a young woman lights the candles surrounding the altar she created in honor of her grandmother who passed away two years ago. The ofrenda, an offering embodied in an altar of remembrance, is part of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) traditions that welcome the departed home for food and festivities.

    Rose petals and cigarettes line the path to the altar, which celebrates her abuelita’s fondness for gardening and smoking. A heart-shaped box holding the matriarch’s ashes sits beside a cup of coffee and a plate of pan dulce (sweet bread). Old family photographs provide a nostalgic black-and-white backdrop for the display. At the center, a pink and black prayer veil cradles a card bearing the grandmother’s name: María del Refugio, which in Spanish means Mary be our Refuge.

    For more than 3,000 years, communities—from ancient Mesoamerica to modern México—have provided refuge to the spirits of loved ones who traverse the world of the dead to commune with the living.

    November begins with Día de los Muertos, a national holiday in México. Throughout the country, communities diligently prepare for the two-day celebrations (Nov. 1-2) by creating altars and preparing special aromatic foods. Cemeteries bustle with visitors delivering flowers to gravesites and mausoleums. Papier mâchè skulls line store-window displays and paper banners with images of dancing skeletons drape across walkways. At night, city plazas welcome revelers whose marigold-festooned altars display personal trinkets and treats in honor of the departed.

    Although Día de Los Muertos coincides with Halloween in the United States, the south-of-the-border tradition does not focus on candy collection or mischievous tricksters. For Mexicans, the symbolic visits from the dead are neither morbid nor macabre. They are celebratory.

    Día de los Muertos remains an important and profound holiday laced with Christian religious symbols and figures, including the Christ on the cross and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The celebration has a rich historical and cultural tradition that springs from the human hope to never be forgotten.

    The celebration of Día de los Muertos bears striking resemblance with the tradition of ancestor veneration practiced by ancient Mesoamericans. The Aztecs, Zapotecs, Maya and other indigenous groups did not envision the dead inhabiting a reality apart from the living, but rather viewed the worlds of the dead and the living as deeply intertwined.

    “Death and life were not separate states of existence for Mesoamerican communities,” says Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor of art and art history. “For them, the living and the dead co-existed, and they believed communication could take place between the realms.

    “During this period, there were no community graveyards in our modern sense of the term. Instead, families typically buried their loved ones directly under the floors of their households.”

    Continue reading about Dia de los Muertos.

    Watch a video of professors reading their favorite spooky passages.

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