Death of a loved one in the United States is treated almost always as a solemn experience where grief is the predominant sentiment, symbolized by dark and somber colors and sad music.
Mexicans Americans, Mexicans and people from other Latin American countries look at death in a very different way. They see it as a celebration, a time to be joyful and a way to pay homage to those who have gone before.
El Dia de los Muertos is a multi-day celebratory tradition. It begins on Oct. 31, the same day as Halloween in the U.S., but it is not to be confused with Halloween as it is entirely distinct.
The tradition happens to have one-day, Oct. 31, in common with the Halloween. That’s about the extent of it.
Most celebrants view El Dia de los Muertos as a happy, spirit filled event of recognition and family praises and not as an opportunity to dress up in costumes and go house to house seeking candy, although some people may see it that way.
Mexicans are not culturally monolithic. Liliana Cortes, who is Mexican American, said she doesn’t celebrate the holiday. “My aunties and uncles on my grandmother’s side celebrate El Dia de los Muertos” she said. “But I don’t. I see it as the same as Halloween. Many Mexicans are Catholic and they celebrate it. I am Christian, but I am not Catholic.”
The tradition is relatively new to the United States but has been observed by Mexicans for hundreds of years.
It is believed that on Nov. 1, the children and mothers who have died in childbirth return to visit. On Nov. 2, all of the adults who have died naturally–or otherwise–return.
Dia de Muertos is rooted in a combination of Aztec and Mictecaihatl mixed with some aspect of Catholic traditions. Mictecacihuatl in Aztec culture is the lady of the dead and is believed to watch over the bones of the dead and swallow the stars during the day, according to Aztec beliefs.
The Catholic Church rejected these Aztec beliefs and changed the holiday into an observance for the welcoming of the dead into the living world on what the Church calls All Saints’ and All Soul’s Day.
Rigo Gonzalez, co-president of Raices Unidas and Minneapolis College student, holds the tradition in great reverence.
“The reason El Dia de los Muertos and the ofrenda are so important to our Latino culture is because it plays a huge part in our Aztec rituals of our ancestors,” Gonzales said. “It is important for us to also bring awareness because many folks believe that it’s our version of Halloween, which is completely wrong. We use this beautiful day to celebrate and honor of the life of our lost loved-ones.”
The ofrenda is the altar upon which much of the commemorative artifacts are placed in anticipation of deceased’s return. Each item is carefully positioned on the ofrenda in a manner that shows respect for the departed.
Families visit the graves of their loved ones and in festive ways celebrate life and death. Some families create and decorate home altars (ofrendas) with brightly colored artifacts such as candles, flowers and photographs of the dead.
“The reason it is important to me is because this is tradition … that I remember my family celebrating ever since I was a little kid,” Gonzales said. “It is also important to me because I believe it is important to educate people awareness within different cultures of making assumptions or certain appropriations that may mock or insult one’s ways of life.”
Many weeks of preparation go into the celebration.
Colorfully decorated skulls and skeletons Calaveras and Calacas in Spanish are popular fixtures on altars and at burial sites. Food and drink are offered to facilitate the journey between the underworld and the living world.
Marigolds are placed on ofrendas and burial sites as it is believed their bright colors and salient fragrance will help guide the journey of their loved-ones as they return home for the celebration of their lives.
Other aspects of the tradition include perforated paper, papel picado, and something resembling stenciled paper depicting a variety of images.
The paper is delicate tissue signifying the fragileness of life and the thin line between this world and the next.
These too, are carefully positioned so on the ofrenda to show respect for the deceased.
Sandy Canseco, co-president of Raices Unida and Minneapolis College student finds comfort in the tradition.
“El Dia de los Muertos is special for me because it helps me remember my ancestors and my people even better,” Canseco said. “I am able to celebrate their lives in such a happy way instead of crying and moping all day. Being able to decorate my ofrenda and being able to give them what they use to like is like I’m with them again.”
There is always food to be shared with all including strangers. Pan de Muertos, (day of the dead bread) is a prominent part of the celebration. The chewy, unsweetened bread symbolizes the body and mind of the person who died.
Mexican tradition demands that plenty of Mexican foods like tamales, soups, mole and in particular the favorite foods of the departed should be placed on the ofrenda. They share their food with family and friends and even with those who are not friends or family members.
Other Latin American countries, including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, celebrate some form of El Dia de los Muertos, in their unique manner, but celebrations tend not to be as festive as those of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
Celebrants invite others to participate in the tradition as long as they are respectful. The tradition carries deeply rooted meaning and spirituality for its believers.
“It’s important for me because ever since I was a kid my parents always told me don’t forget about the people who have fought for you even before you were born,” Canesco said. This is a holiday that is not only about death but also about happiness.”