Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a tradition celebrated across Latin America from October 31 to November 2. The belief is that during this time, the spirits of our deceased family members can visit their living family members. It is a celebration of life and death and a time to remember our family member’s time on Earth. November 1 is All Saints Day and “El Día de los Inocentes”, or the Day of the Innocents, meaning the children who passed away (as is celebrated particularly in Latin America). Although Mexico is where this tradition originated and is highly celebrated nationwide, it is not the only country that celebrates this tradition. The customs of celebration are expressed differently across the world, even ranging in custom according to region within each country. The roots of Día de los Muertos goes back thousands of years to the rituals of the Aztecs in Mesoamerica, which is now Central Mexico. The Spanish colonization brought with it an entirely new language, culture, and even religion. Catholicism was imposed on the native people. The indigenous had to assimilate and therefore blended traditions and beliefs to create new customs.
Today, this festive time is filled with families preparing for nearly a month in advance to create beautiful ofrendas/altars, decorate the burial sites, and cook amazing food! The Aztecs would historically offer water and food on the ofrendas to help their deceased on their journey. Now, families set up these ofrendas in their homes by placing photos of their loved ones, some of their belongings, favorite food, calaveras/skulls, and flowers. Cempasuchil or marigolds are the flowers used during Dia de los Muertos celebrations to guide the spirits. These flowers can be seen in the movie Coco as a bridge between the “Land of the Remembered” and the “Land of Living”. The calaveras/skulls are beautifully painted and ornately decorated skulls that are also placed on the altars. They are extremely colorful and typically have patterns of flowers and a smile.
“Papel picado” means perforated paper and it is the banner-like paper you would see in Mexico and in the opening scene of Coco. It comes from Aztec tradition of chiseling spirit figures on wood and it is now reflected in modern-day papel picado. La Catrina is one of the biggest symbols of Día de los Muertos. She was created by Jose Guadalupe Posada and then later named and dressed up in a painting by Diego Rivera. She is portrayed as a tall skeleton wearing a nice dress and fancy hat with feathers. Posada first drew her as a satirical drawing directed to Mexicans who wanted to look more European, with the message that no matter your wealth, your status, or the color of your skin, everyone ends up as skeletons. Pan de Muertos, or Day of the Dead bread, is a huge part of the festivities and can also be placed on the altars.
My family celebrates Día de los Muertos by setting up ofrendas in our homes, remembering our deceased family members, and praying for them. My Abuelita and some of my Tias come together to create a beautiful ofrenda in my Abuelita’s home (pictured below). In my grandmother’s ofrenda, you can see the papel picado, images of our deceased loved ones, marigold petals, symbols of La Catrina, statues of Our Virgin Mary, food, and much more. In my own home, we didn’t really celebrate Día de los Muertos, but now it has a special place in my heart because it is a beautiful tradition of my culture. I get to remember and celebrate my Abuelito.