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Dia de los Muertos: Unearthing Mexico's national holiday reveals celebrations that keep the dead among the living

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Skeleton headAs 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 abuelitas 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.

Lilian Moguel, a fourth-year journalism/Spanish major, participates in a campus Dia de los Muertos celebration, sponsored by the Mexican American Culture Committe
Lilian Moguel, a fourth-year journalism/Spanish major, participates in a campus Día de los Muertos celebration, sponsored by the Mexican American Culture Committee.

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 candycollection 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.

History: Ancient Links to Ancestor Veneration

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.

Papier mache skull adorns an altar at a Dia de los Muertos celebration

“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.”

Mesoamerican burial chambers often were not permanently sealed. This form of ancestor veneration showed a great respect for the dead. Family members could enter the tombs and make offerings to their deceased ancestors long after they were laid to rest.

The living sought help from their deceased relatives who could act as intermediaries between the realm of the living and of the dead. In fact, vivid images of this practice exist throughout Mesoamerica. For example, a Classic Maya stela (or carved upright stone slab) from the ancient site of Piedras Negras in Guatemala, depicts the presentation of an offering to a deceased ancestor, who rests below in a chamber, swaddled in cloth as a mummy bundle.

“Such images provide rich evidence for long-established patterns of ancestor veneration, which appear to be echoed in the modern rituals of Día de los Muertos,” Guernsey says.

The indigenous traditions continued throughout the pre-Columbian period and beyond the arrival of Europeans when the rituals merged with Catholic practices to create a trans-cultural blend of celebrations, scheduled to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day in November.

Perspective: Life in Death

Throughout Mexico’s history, death has been part of the mainstream culture.

“Mexicans revere death and do not fear the afterlife to the same degree as many other cultures,” Peter Ward, a professor of sociology and public policy, says.

An altar of remembrance at a Dia de los Muertos celebration
Messages for loved ones are often part of the altars of remembrance at Día de los Muertos celebrations.

As Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz explains in “Labyrinth of Solitude,” a Mexican mocks, caresses, sleeps with and entertains death. Paz places death among Mexicans’ favorite playthings and calls it their “most enduring love.”

His sentiments capture the cultural and emotional significance of Día de los Muertos in Mexico where conquest, wars and high infant mortality rates have made death a part of daily life.

“In a country where every family has been touched by death, learning to look the afterlife in the face is a powerful—and cathartic—exercise,” Ward says. “In many cultures, once people are buried, they are permanently separated from the living. But, Mexicans confront death and view it as just another part of life. That’s a healthy—and honest—attitude.”

Ward holds the C. B. Smith, Sr. Centennial Chair in United States-Mexico Relations #2. During his classes on the society, culture and politics of modern Mexico, he introduces students to the profound and religious nature of the country’s most famous celebration.

According to Mexican legend, there are three types of death: The first occurs when all bodily functions cease and the soul leaves the body; the second occurs when the body is interred, returning one’s physical shell to the earth; and the final, most definitive death, occurs when no one remembers you.

“Remembrance is powerful. So long as someone remembers you, then you will escape the third death,” Ward says. “The Día de los Muertos rituals are meaningful reminders of the connections between life and death, between the living and the dead. On a fundamental level, there is something comforting about knowing you always will be remembered.”

Celebration: The Rituals of Remembrance

Throughout Día de los Muertos, family members and friends tend to the gravesites of their loved ones, clearing away grass and debris and adorning the space with favorite trinkets and food and drinks. The colorful and playful ofrendas include earthly tributes for both children and adults: toys and tequila top many of the tombstones.

Dia de los Muertos Glossary: abuelita: Spanish diminutive for grandmother; alfeñique: sugar; angelitos: little angels; calacas: skeletons; calaveras: skulls; cempasúchil: marigolds, also known as the flower of the dead; Día de los Muertos: Day of the Dead; ofrenda: offering, also used to describe altars; pan de muerto: bread of the dead; pan dulce: sweet bread; papel picado: paper with cut-out images; refugio: refuge; stela: carved, upright stone slabMarigolds, also known as the flower of the dead (cempasúchil), adorn table settings, altars and final resting places. Above the bright orange flowers hang colorful paper with cut out images (papel picado) of flowers, birds or skeletons. The images of the skeletons (calacas) are not fear-inspiring. Instead, they capture a joyful moment of dancing or drinking.

The first day (Nov. 1) is All Saints Day and focuses attention and prayers on los angelitos, or little angels representing the souls of children. The second day (Nov. 2) is All Souls Day and welcomes home adults.

In some homes, the family elder presides over the festivities and place settings are reserved for the recently departed. At the end of the two-day celebration of the dead, the living partake of the feast for the now-departed honorees. They drink the water—and other favorite beverages—and consume the specially baked bread of the dead (pan de muerto) and treats made from alfeñique (sugar). Among the most popular of the powdered sugar figures are skulls (calaveras) that display the names of loved ones.

“Much of Dia de los Muertos involves the senses,” says Cristina Cabello de Martínez, a lecturer in the Spanish and Portuguese department and the Center for Mexican American Studies. “The celebration beckons one to see the bright-orange flowers, smell the incense and taste the flavors of our loved ones’ favorite food and drink.”

Cabello de Martínez says the uplifting and welcoming nature of the festivities has helped preserve and expand the holiday.

Dia de los Muertos survived the conquest because it embraced the Catholic belief that death is not an end,” she says. “There occurred a synchronicity in spirituality between the indigenous and Catholic faiths. Each believed in the immortal nature of the soul.”

Today, she says, the traditions continue to resonate with people even if they did not grow up with the holiday.

“The celebration has become a popular, mainstream event among immigrants and second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans,” she says. And, it continues to gain momentum in the United States among non-Latinos.”

Día de los Muertos has been celebrated in areas with high concentrations of Hispanics such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. In 1999, the New York Times reported New York’s Archdiocese had yet to embrace Día de Los Muertos as part of Catholic beliefs, citing its rituals’ pagan roots. But, as more immigrants from Mexico and Central America moved into the city, pastors of local churches began to allow parishioners to set up ofrendas.

Marigolds, also known as the flower of the dead, adorn table settings, altars and final resting places during Dia de los Muertos celebrations
Marigolds, also known as the flower of the dead, adorn table settings, altars and final resting places during Día de los Muertos celebrations.

In Texas, almost 35 percent of the population is Hispanic. Día de los Muertos has been popular along the U.S.-Mexico border in cities such as El Paso and Laredo. As more Texans of Mexican descent move into central and North Texas, there is an increasing awareness of the south-of-the-border celebration in communities such as Austin, Houston and Dallas.

There are regional variations in how Día de los Muertos is celebrated, Cabello de Martínez says. In Los Angeles, there is a stronger connection to the indigenous roots of the holiday. The rituals are more orthodox, adhering to the symbolic arrangement of flowers, incense and the inclusion of native-language chants. Farther from the border, the traditions are more informal, reflecting regional styles and personal preferences.

For Mexican-Americans who grew up celebrating both Halloween and Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead stands in contrast to the candy-laden celebrations that drew their fascination and energies as children.

“Halloween evokes memories of fun and games, of dressing up as your favorite super hero or monster,” Adan Briones, a third-year law student who grew up in El Paso, says. “When I think about Día de los Muertos, I remember a deeper, more symbolic holiday that recognizes the past and honors the people you loved. As an adult, I think you can outgrow Halloween. But, you can’t really outgrow Día de los Muertos. As you mature, the holiday becomes more important and profound.”

Briones predicts the Mexican holiday will continue to gain momentum north of the border, while remaining popular among Mexican-Americans who want to preserve a connection to their heritage.

“More people are embracing Día de los Muertos because it confronts death in a real—and meaningful—way. It reminds you about the inevitable loss of life that comes with living, but it also allows you to find life beyond death,” Briones says.


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  Updated 6 November 2006
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