El Dia de Los Muertos: a spirited celebration


Mexico Day of the Dead
A woman visits the grave of a relative during Day of the Dead celebrations in Atzompa, Oaxaca, Mexico. Friends and families gather in cemeteries to decorate their loved ones’ graves and hold vigil through the night on Nov. 1.

By Bianca Ruiz

Brightly painted skulls line the front of a multi-tiered ofrenda (altar), and candles of different scents cluster together in the corners. Bouquets of brightly colored cempasúchiles (marigolds) border the bottom of the ofrenda. Some are scattered across the vibrant tablecloths of a variety of colors such as orange, yellow, purple, pink, or blue.

Intricate designs are cut into the delicate papel picado (tissue paper banners) as they are strung up above the ofrenda. Warm pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and glasses filled with wine and other beverages stand as offerings to deceased relatives, whose pictures stand framed and tall on the ofrenda.

In the center on the highest tier, la Catrina and el Catrín, the icons for this beloved occasion, stand together. La Catrina wears her large signature hat and an elegant long dress, clasping a bouquet of flowers in her skeletal hands. Next to her, el Catrín is found in a simple black and white tuxedo, a tall top hat resting on his skull.

El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a popular two-day festival that starts on November 1 and ends on November 2. Not to be confused with Halloween, Día de los Muertos originated in many Mesoamerican cultures. When the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century, they tried to rid the indigenous people of their native beliefs, but found themselves unable to do so, despite their best efforts. Thus, the Spaniards merged their Catholic influence into this celebration, naming it All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2).

Many families in Mexico celebrate this holiday and put together ofrendas for their deceased relatives, creating a path of cempasúchile petals at the front of the house to lead the relatives home. They often walk to the cemetery where their loved ones are buried and clean up their tombstones, decorating them with fresh flowers and unlit candles.

A popular tradition for these strolls to the cemetery is the offering of the deceased’s favorite meal so that when they cross over into our world, they may have something waiting for them. Children and adults gather around graves and play music, laughing and reliving memories that they shared with the deceased.

At night, the cobblestone streets of the plazas are filled with mariachis belting out their songs as parades filled with people waltz by. Everyone is dressed up to resemble sugar skulls, their faces painted white with colorful swirls and flowers scattered on their cheeks and their eyes painted black.

This holiday was designed to commemorate the dead and celebrate their lives while making death seem like another step we all take in life.

Recently, Día de los Muertos has become more popular and acknowledged in American culture, as seen in Disney’s most recent film, “Coco.”

“In the past they would have ignored it or derided it. Now, they find it cool and hip,” Andrew Chesnut, a professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said.

Many cities now celebrate these two days, including Olvera Street in Downtown Los Angeles.

While some traditions of Día de los Muertos have evolved and changed, the culture is still alive and thriving, and many are taking inspiration from it and celebrating in their own ways.

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