The day of the dead or Día de Muertos is an ever-evolving public holiday that traces its earliest roots to the Aztec people in what is now central Mexico. The Aztecs used skulls to honor the dead a millennium before the Day of the Dead Celebrations. Skulls, like those once placed on Aztec temples, remain a key symbol in a tradition that has continued for more than six centuries in the annual celebration to honor and commune with those who have passed away.
Once the Spaniards conquered the Aztec Empire in the 16e century, the Catholic Church moved Indigenous celebrations and rituals in honor of the dead throughout the year to Catholic dates commemorating All Saints and All Saints on November 1 and 2. Día de Muertos on November 2, indigenous Latin American traditions and symbols of honoring the dead merged with unofficial Catholic practices and notions of an afterlife. The same happened on November 1 to honor the deceased children.
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Day of the dead traditions
During these ceremonies, people build altars in their homes with ofrendas, offerings to the souls of their loved ones. Candles light up photos of the deceased and items left behind. Families read letters and poems and tell anecdotes and jokes about the dead. Offerings of tamales, peppers, water, tequila and pan de muerto, a specific bread for the occasion, are lined with bright orange or yellow cempasúchil flowers, marigolds, the strong scent of which helps guide souls at home.
Copal incense, used for ceremonies in Antiquity, is lit to attract spirits. The sugar skulls molded in clay are painted and decorated with feathers, foil and icing, with the name of the deceased written on the front. The altars include the four elements of life: water, food for the earth, the candle for the fire and for the wind, papel picado, folk art made of colorful tissue paper with cut-out designs that cut across the altar or wall. Some families also include a Christian crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico in the altar.
In Mexico, families clean the graves of cemeteries, preparing for the spirit to come. On the night of November 2, they bring food to the cemetery to attract spirits and participate in a community celebration. Groups perform and people dance to please visiting souls.
“People are really dead when you forget them, and if you think about them, they are alive in your mind, they are alive in your heart,” says Mary J. Andrade, journalist and author of eight books on Day of the Dead. the dead. “When people create an altar, they think about that person who is gone and think about their own mortality, to be strong, to accept it with dignity.
Celebrating the dead is part of a national culture
“This sort of thing happens alongside more intimate observation of the family altar,” says Claudio Lomnitz, an anthropologist at Columbia University and author of Death and the idea of Mexico. “They are not opposed to each other.”
The rise of La Catrina
La Catrina has become the public face of the festive Día de Muertos in processions and festivities. Mexican painter Diego Rivera placed a Catrina in an ostentatious maxi dress in the center, her mural, completed in 1947, depicts the end of the Revolutionary War in Mexico. La Catrina’s sleek “dandy” clothes denote a mocking celebration, while her smile emerging through her pompous appearance reminds revelers to accept the common fate of mortality.
Protest skulls, witnesses of blood
Over the decades, celebrations in honor of the dead – skulls and the like – have spread north to the rest of Mexico and much of the United States and abroad. Schools and museums from coast to coast are displaying altars and teaching children to carve papel picado folk art to represent the wind helping souls to return home.
In the 1970s, the Chicano movement exploited party customs with public altars, art displays, and processions to celebrate Mexican heritage and speak out against discrimination. In the 1980s, Day of the Dead altars were set for victims of the AIDS epidemic, for the thousands who went missing during the drug war in Mexico, and for those lost in the earthquake. of 1985 in Mexico. In 2019, mourners installed a giant altar with ofrendas, or offerings, near a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where a gunman targeting Latinos killed 22 people.
As Lomnitz explains, one of the reasons why more and more people are participating in Día de Muertos celebrations is that the holiday addresses a reality that is seldom recognized by modern cultures – our own mortality.
“It creates a space for communication between the living and the dead. Where do people get this? Lomnitz said. “These altars have become a resource and a connection to this world and that is part of their popularity and fascination.”