Maegan Kasteler | Nov 23, 2020

Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), which is characterized by decorative sugar skulls, is often misinterpreted as a continuation of Halloween or something spooky. It’s actually much more: a holiday steeped in tradition and symbolism and focused on the family.

Origins of the Holiday

Before the Spanish conquistadores came to the Mesoamerican region, the Aztecs gave ritual offerings to their deceased ancestors. They believed that after death, the soul started a journey to Chicunamictlán, or the Land of the Dead. This was a long journey consisting of nine levels over the course of several years. After passing through all nine levels, the soul would finally reach the final resting place, Mictlán. In Aztec rituals, family members of the deceased would provide food, water, and tools to help their deceased loved ones on their journey.

Originally, the celebration was held in August. The Aztecs would welcome visits from beyond the grave and celebrate Mictēcacihuātl (historically known as the Lady of the Dead), the goddess of the underworld. However, when the Spanish arrived, they brought along their Catholic traditions, resulting in a cultural fusion. The celebration is now observed from October 31 to November 2, corresponding to the Catholic All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. (For this reason Día de los Muertos is often associated with Halloween.)

The first day of Día de los Muertos is a day of preparation. The second day, November 1, is Día de los Inocentes (the Day of the Innocents), or Día de los Angelitos (the Day of the Little Angels). This day celebrates infants and children who have passed away. And traditionally the name Día de los Muertos refers specifically to November 2, the day when deceased adults are celebrated.

Observers of Día de los Muertos believe that the dead would be offended by mourning. So instead they use the day to celebrate their ancestors’ lives by having parties, dancing, and doing activities the deceased loved in life. Another belief is that the deceased are woken from their eternal sleep to come and share in the celebrations with their loved ones.

Modern Observance

Día de los Muertos is mostly associated with Mexico, where it originated, but it is celebrated in much of Latin America. Mexican emigrants have brought the tradition to many areas of the globe. Although Día de los Muertos was commonly seen as a holiday of the working class, people of all classes have rediscovered it through pop culture. Today many people celebrate by attending citywide festivals and making themselves up to look like calaveras, or sugar skulls.

Modern observance of the holiday includes the ofrenda, an offering placed on a ritual altar that becomes the center of the celebration. These altars can be found in public spaces such as churches and cemeteries, as well as in private homes. The altar is covered with items significant to the person it is dedicated to, such as photographs, personal belongings, and favorite foods. Celebratory staples include pan de muerto, a traditional sugary pastry, and marigold petals.

Other decorations for the celebration include:

  • Papel picado, colorful tissue paper with cutout designs, strung like banners or flags.
  • Flores de muerto, orange and yellow marigolds. These are intended to help cheer up the dead with their bright colors and sweet scent.
  • Calaveras, colorful skulls made of molded sugar paste. These can be edible or decorative, and they often feature the names of the dead.

Pop Culture and Global Recognition

In 2008, Día de los Muertos was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. From UNESCO’s website:

“This encounter between the living and the dead affirms the role of the individual within society and contributes to reinforcing the political and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities.

“The Day of the Dead celebration holds great significance in the life of Mexico’s indigenous communities. The fusion of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts brings together two universes, one marked by indigenous belief systems, the other by worldviews introduced by the Europeans in the sixteenth century” (“Indigenous Festivity Dedicated to the Dead,” ich.unesco.org).

Pop culture references include the following:

  • The Barbie Día De Muertos doll was released in September 2019 and retailed for $75. A new one was released in September 2020.
  • The 2015 James Bond film Spectre features a scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in Mexico City.
  • The Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA award–winning 2017 Disney-Pixar film Coco was inspired by Día de los Muertos. Its theme song, “Remember Me,” was sung by Natalia Lafourcade and Miguel. In 2018, Lafourcade spoke at RootsTech and performed “Remember Me” there as well. Watch her keynote address here.
  • The 2014 film The Book of Life, also inspired by Día de los Muertos, is about a bullfighter who embarks on an afterlife adventure to fulfill the expectations of his family and friends.
  • Grim Fandango, a PC game, references Día de los Muertos.
  • Calaveras and calavera-style skeleton costumes are widely popular.
  • The 2003 film Once upon a Time in Mexico—starring Antonia Banderas, Salma Hayek, and Enrique Iglesias—includes a Día de los Muertos celebration.

You can explore art, exhibits, videos, and more about Día de los Muertos on Google Arts and Culture.

If your family celebrated Día de los Muertos, share with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using #RootsTech.

Maegan Kasteler

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