Written By: Christopher Puga
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a traditional holiday first practiced thousand of years ago by indigenous people such as the Aztecs and the Toltecs. They didn’t consider death the end of one’s existence but simply another chapter of life. Rather than grieve for their dead, ancient Mexicans celebrated the lives of the deceased and honored their memories. During Dia de los Muertos, observed October 31 – November 2, they believed that the dead had a brief window to leave the spirit realm and visit their loved ones in the mortal world.
Three thousand years later, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated globally. Observers visit gravesites, making ofrendas or altars for the dead, and leave offerings for them. Over the millennia, the holiday has changed in more ways than anyone living now can possibly know. The 16th century arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes to Mexico saw the imposition of Catholicism on the indigenous customs. The Catholic church recognizes November 1 and 2 and All Saints Day and All Souls Day, respectively and scholars say modern Dia de los Muertos observances have indigenous roots with European influences. But for generations, the holiday has been widely practiced by people of Mexican ancestry, leading some people to imply “outsiders” partaking in these celebrations of cultural appropriation*. Many people associate Dia de los Muertos with Halloween or “All Hallows Eve” on October 31, assuming that it is the version of “Mexican Halloween,” but this is not true. Although the two holidays share common roots, they are very different in their meaning and rituals. Dia de los Muertos is a three-day ceremony of remembrance, love and connection; whereas Halloween as it is known today completely lacks this spiritual importance. There are many ways for people everywhere to participate in and honor Dia de los Muertos through cultural appreciation*.
During Dia de los Muertos, there are many items or “offerings” that are left on the ofrendas that have a symbol to those that may have passed. Some may put food items that may have been favored by a relative or some specific items that represent culture and Mexican spirit. One of the items that my family associates with Dia de los Muertos celebrations is Green Pozole, a delicious recipe that my grandmother would make to bring the family together incorporating family time and bonding. She was the true spirit of uniting the family and she definitely did not let it down in the kitchen. As a family we definitely knew that when the Green Pozole was ready, it was time to gather as a family and talk about memories and our loved ones.
In my family, there are multiple items that we like to put on our ofrendas such as the sugar skull. Many Dia de los Muertos shrines tend to include decorative skulls, or sugar skulls, using such materials as granulated sugar, meringue powder, and water when molding them. Once the sculpting is complete, we traditionally paint them in bright colors to represent our deceased loved ones. These skulls symbolize the people to whom they are making offerings for.
Tradition also states that these souls may be hungry and thirsty. That is why many Dia de los Muertos ofrendas include Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead. This sweet treat’s shape typically resembles a skull and crossbones. Ofrendas may also feature water and salt, as well as specific foods that a deceased loved one enjoyed when they were alive. Along with large decorative skulls, Dia de los Muertos ofrendas also commonly include smaller skeleton figurines such as toys or puppets. Sometimes they are even edible, adding more for people’s ancestors to enjoy.
Another item that we like to add to our ofrenda are monarch butterflies, since monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico every year. Their arrival typically coincides with November 1, the start of Dia de los Muertos. According to traditional beliefs, this is because they contain the souls of the dead returning to their shrines for the celebration.
Often, papel picado, a colorful, perforated paper that normally hangs over the ofrendas, helps to add color to these already colorful scenes. It’s significant for two reasons. One, because it’s perforated, the paper naturally contains numerous holes. Some believe these holes serve as gateways for souls visiting their shrines. The paper is also very fragile, which symbolizes life’s fragility. Many families also fill their ofrendas with candles, which serves the same symbolic purpose as marigolds (Mexican flower leafs), to help the souls find their way to the altars.
When you approach the ofrenda, you may discover that the experience is multisensory as Dia de los Muertos ofrendas clearly look attractive and impressive. That said, people also commonly add incense to them, resulting in a noticeable scent. We believe it helps to facilitate communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Dia de los Muertos shrines often feature arches where people can leave their offerings. However, these arches don’t merely serve decorative purposes. The arches also symbolize the gateway between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Yet again, this blending of life and death is the core of many Dia de los Muertos traditions. While we may enjoy being alive, we must remember it is not a permanent experience.
My family really strives to use this holiday to interact with one another to bring back memories for our younger siblings. We love to keep photos and memorabilia up all year to help those who are growing up in our family remember them every day. There will come a time that we won’t be here anymore and we must keep the tradition in the family with all the young ones to come. Even if we may have items that represent those who have passed on, we always invite all others in our family to bring more the night of Dia de los Muertos so they can enjoy their memories they had with the lost family.
Even though Dia de los Muertos celebrations are just a few days on the calendar, like many families, we always try to make the most of our memories and hope that someday, younger generations will keep on with the tradition alive.
Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Appreciation: Ways to honor the holiday with cultural sensitivity
- Visit Festivals and Museums – Observe and educate yourself on the traditions and history
- Patronize Latinxs or Latin Americans owned-stores