The first time I went to Mexico, I remember riding by a cemetery– the colorful graves struck me. I remember seeing colorful skulls, calaveras, and skeletons, calacas, in the gift shops but I didn’t understand why. For me, growing up in the United States, this symbol is often associated with Halloween — scary and gory.
When I started following Latina blogs I realized that the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, was celebrated in a much different way than I was used to– in Ecuador, where my family is from, Día de los Difuntos is not a festive holiday– you go to the cemetery to visit your loved ones, but there is no food/celebration at the cemetery, and there is no colorful imagery like calacas or calaveras.
I had always been intrigued why in Mexican culture the Dia de los muertos was celebrated with colorful skulls; and why it is a celebration. In talking to other Latinos in the USA, I realized that many felt like me– so I decided to do some research on the holiday — here is what I learned:
WHERE DOES DIA DE LOS MUERTOS COME FROM?
The holiday coincides with Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (Nov. 1st and 2nd) but in Mexico its roots go back to the beliefs of its indigenous people who believe that the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31st and the spirits of children (called angelitos) who have passed away are allowed to visit their families for 24 hours. On November 2nd, the adult spirits come down.
PICTURE CREDIT: FLICKR
IS DAY OF THE DEAD SCARY?
No, Learn NC explains, ‘There is nothing somber or macabre about the event. The dead come as spirits from another world to be with their living relatives and to visit in their homes. They do not come to scare or haunt as we believe Halloween spirits do.”
WHY DO PEOPLE CELEBRATE DEATH?
Becky from Kid World Citizen, explains, “People celebrate death because it is seen as a part of the natural life cycle: flowers that die leave behind seeds that will sprout a new life, and people who pass on leave many gifts for their families. The whimsical skeletons and skulls for Day of the Dead are a playful symbol of life after death, many times representing those who have died engaging in their favorite activities.”
DO PEOPLE CELEBRATE IN CEMETERIES?
Yes, for Dia de los muertos, Mexicans go to the cemetery and clean the tombstones, celebrate with food, music and spend time with their loved ones, reminiscing about the good times they had with them. They bring ofrendas (offerings) with them, food and drinks that the deceased loved.
WHY ARE SKULLS THE SYMBOL FOR THIS HOLIDAY?
The prominence of skulls as a Day of the Dead symbol go back to pre-Columban times. For indigenous peoples, skulls were important icons that illustrated their belief in the existence of an active afterlife. In Mexican culture, skulls do not only symbolize death in the same way they do in the USA, rather they symbolize death and rebirth.
PICTURE CREDIT: PHOTOPIN
WHAT IS AN ALTAR?
On the last days of October people start preparing altars to honor the loved ones that have passed away. They include photos, the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, candles and flowers. The traditional flower for this holiday is Cempasuchitl (“flor de muerto“= marigold flowers).
WHO IS CATRINA?
La Calavera Catrina is a 1910–1913 zinc etching by a Mexican printmaker and cartoon illustrator named José Guadalupe Posada. It has become a symbol of El Dia de los Muertos.
WHAT IS A SUGAR SKULL?
A common decoration on altars are sugar skulls. Where did this tradition come from? According to MexicanSugarSkull.com, “Sugar art was brought to the New World by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. […] Mexicans learned from friars how to make them. “Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit. Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colorful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments. Sugar skulls are labor intensive and made in very small batches in the homes of sugar skull makers.” Check out this tutorial on The Other Side of the Tortilla.
IS THERE SPECIAL FOOD ASSOCIATED WITH THIS HOLIDAY?
Yes, in addition to putting the deceased’s favorite foods on the altar, pan de dulce is traditional food, as well as cookies made in the shape of skulls.
CAN I DRESS UP AS CATRINA?
There is a lot of debate whether dressing up as Catrina is appropriate. Many say it is considered cultural appropriation and it should not be done for Halloween. Lenore Koppelman, a facepainter, shared that when she started she was painting Catrinas without knowing the history or culture behind the symbolism. She learned about it and has now changed her approach to facepainting Catrinas, learning the symbolism behind the different elements in the design: what colors are popular, what the stitches in the mouth mean versus teeth, how we should can use elements that our dearly departed loved, such as a favorite flower.
FACEPAINTING AND PHOTO CREDIT: LENORE KOPPLEMAN
Another facepainter, Shawna, says we should learn about the holiday: “I ask you to consider showing respect for the Mexican culture this season by staying true to the beauty of the Holiday and learning about the history. It’s not about painting your face as a Sugar Skull as part of a costume for Halloween and instead it’s about a celebration of life through death. I urge you to go to the grave sites or a Dia de los Muertos celebration and experience the reality and beauty that is Dia de los Muertos.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: IT’S ABOUT CELEBRATING LIFE
Shawna says, “When you lose a loved one the sadness never really goes away, it just becomes easier to live with day by day. Día de los Muertos is a Mexican tradition that embraces death, mocks death and laughs at it. It’s a way to accept the inevitable and be good with it.”
Molly Sanchez said it best when she says El Dia de Los Muertos is “a holiday that celebrates life by celebrating the inevitability of death.”