How the Dead Turn Up More than You Do

By Henrry Vivar-Gomez

Día de los Muertos is a holiday that originated from Mexico, the center of the universe according to the Aztecs. It is a holiday that is full of food, dance, color, and life. Its origins date back to the 1500’s during the Aztec era. Angelita Cervando, a writer for La Voz, wisely states, “For the Aztecs and other Indians, the distinction between life and death was not absolute. They believed that death was not the natural end of life but one phase of a natural cycle,” a belief that is still very common nowadays. Día de los Muertos is a time that people celebrate the life of their loved ones who have passed away. This marvelous holiday is celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd. It is believed that on October 31st at midnight, the gates of the dead are opened, allowing them to visit their living family from November 1st to November 2nd. Originally, Día de los Muertos was a holiday only celebrated by the Aztecs. This all changed when the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico bringing their religion, Catholicism. The introduction of Catholicism changed Día de los Muertos. Dr. Regina Marchi, an Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, carefully explains in chapter one of Day of the Dead in the USA that “the resulting celebrations were fusions of Indigenous customs, official catholic practices, and folk Catholicism” (12). One of the major changes that came from the fusion were the change in the figures that were worshiped. The Spaniards believed that no Catholic should take part in the holiday, so they decided to change the holiday to fit their beliefs and later forced the modified version onto the Mexican natives. Día de los Muertos has three aspects: symbolism, art, and popularity.

The first aspect of Día de los Muertos is symbolism. Symbolism is shown everywhere from the dancing to the ofrendas. Almost everything on this holiday has a significant meaning behind it. The “ofrendas,” the altars, have several different components, each one having its own meaning. Most ofrendas will have “copal,” a tree resin, which burns in a special ceramic cup. It was once believed that the Aztec gods loved the smell, and as thanks, the Aztecs would burn it. Today, it is believed that the smell from the copal helps lead loved ones from the land of the dead to the ofrendas. Along with having a smell to help lead them to the ofrenda, many families create a trail of marigolds from the graveyard to the ofrenda. These trails help guide their ancestors to the ofrenda. It is said that marigolds have a scent that the dead are infatuated with, but many also believe that the dead like marigolds because of how they represent them by blooming and withering away twice in a year. The journey from the land of the dead to the living land is a long and tiring one, so once they arrive, they will need something to drink. This is a reason why most ofrendas contain a big cup of water along with another refreshments like tequila or horchata. Andrea Valdez, a writer at Texas Monthly, explains how ofrendas differ from one another: “The Deceased’s favorite knickknacks, food or tools create a familiar setting for his return.” This is especially true when a child is on the ofrenda. It is common to see an array of toys set out for them. Along with placing the loved one’s favorite knickknacks out for them, a photo of them is set. Many believe that the photo should be of the person alone because if the photo includes someone else that is living, that living person will die. Symbolism is prevalent on the ofrenda, but it is also seen in figures that are placed throughout the city. La Calavera Catrina is a skeleton wearing an enormous hat that represents the whole essence of Día de los Muertos. It shows how the most cherished ones who have passed away are still full of life. Symbolism is embedded into the beating heart of Día de los Muertos and it can be found in every corner of the holiday, especially in the art.

The second aspect of Día de los Muertos is art. Throughout the years, the art of Día de los Muertos has changed. The figures from the 1500’s are not the same that are known today. For example, La Caterina is a figure that depicts Día de los Muertos, but she did not appear until the early 1900’s in a newspaper. Natalie Howe, a writer at University Wire, adequately explains, “modern depictions, dressed elegantly in flowers and dresses, came from a painting from the early 20th century called La Calavera Catrina.” La Catrina is an elegant and beautifully dressed skeleton who wears a hat larger than life with feathers and flowers popping out. Her introduction in the early 20th century is a major reason why Día de los Muertos is a holiday depicted in flowers and color as seen in Disney’s Coco. During this holiday, she can be found all over the cities in Mexico and even on the ofrendas to ensure that the dead have a fun time when they visit. The ways performers dress are largely impacted by La Caterina. In most dances, called folkloricos, females will usually wear a colorful dress that is embroidered with very beautiful, colorful, vibrant flowers. Men will usually not be as colorful as the women. Instead, the men will wear all white or have a piece of clothing that is colorful. Their way of dressing is modeled after La Calavera Catrina, but it was not always like this. During the Aztec era, Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death who was celebrated for years, was often found on the ofrendas and around the village. Paintings of him were placed on his ofrenda, and figures of him were placed everywhere possible in the village.  Mark Cartwright, the Publishing Director for Ancient History Encyclopedia, adequately explains how the Aztecs depicted Mictlantecuhtli: “Usually portrayed in art as a skeleton or covered in bones with red spots to represent blood. He may also wear a skull mask, bone ear plugs, a costume of owl feathers and even a necklace of eyeballs. He has curly black hair […]. On occasion he can be wearing clothing and conical hat made from bark paper.” He influenced how the people would dress when dancing or celebrating. The outfits were modeled after him, and people would often wear giant feathers and pieces of clothing that resembled his. During this time, Día de los Muertos was a more traditional holiday and did not look like the one celebrated nowadays. This is not the case for modern day Día de los Muertos; this god has been reduced to a figure often forgotten about in all of Mexico. Popular Artworks reflect the change in Día de los Muertos; Día de los Muertos introduces art to the popular masses. 

The third aspect of Día de los Muertos is popularity. In recent years, Día de los Muertos has been pushed to the forefront of media, but it was not always like this. Even Mexico, the country from which it hailed, did not want to celebrate the holiday. Howe reports that Mexico and her citizens did not always celebrate Día de los Muertos:

While nowadays it is one of the most notable holidays, Día de los Muertos was not always embraced by everyone […] For a while, most of Mexico did not celebrate it, and the communities that did were concentrated in the central and southern regions. It was not until recently that the Mexican government declared it a national holiday before it spread to the regions that previously condemned it for engaging in practices that they mistakenly believed “worshipped the dead.”

Mexicans who were once ashamed of having Aztec ancestry are now cheering and celebrating with pride down the streets of their cities, throwing candy to children, and creating marigold paths for the dead to follow. This is not just the case in Mexico; Día de los Muertos has crossed many borders to other countries. In Hybridity and Authenticity in US Day of the Dead Celebrations, a San Diego resident describes how Puerto Rico celebrates Día de los Muertos: “In Puerto Rico, we do not celebrate Day of the Dead in the way that Mexicans do, but we do go to the cemetery and bring flowers. like a lot of people, my mother and grandmother always had a little altar in the house” (qtd. in Marchi 7). Now more than ever, American states with a heavy Hispanic/Latino population are creating festivals to celebrate Día de los Muertos. Now that the spotlight is placed on Día de los Muertos, a lot of attention is being given to the holiday. News stations, television talk shows, and other forms of media are spreading the holiday to the whole world. Target has even started to sell statues of la Catrina in their stores. Film production companies have come out with feature films like Coco and The Book of Life. Both films explore Día de los Muertos in Mexico, as well as give a depiction of the afterlife. Día de los Muertos has grown significantly in popularity; this new attention to Día de los Muertos has raised concerns of the holiday being commercialized and stripped of its significant meaning.

Día de los Muertos has evolve throughout the years. No longer is it a holiday celebrating a god of death who allows the deceased to visit this land to see their living family. People do not have to travel to the center of the universe anymore to celebrate the lives that were lost. The bright colors and soulful dances are not only found in Mexico but as well as in other parts of the world. The beauty of the art has made the world not only pay attention to Día de los Muertos, but also fall in love with the holiday. This holiday has crossed many borders. It has passed borders to countries which may condemn foreign cultures, countries which may have built a ‘huge wall’ to ensure that these foreigners and their customs stay as far from their ‘home.’ No wall is too huge to cross, and no wall can stop the dead. It may happen slowly, but one day the whole world will pick up their marigolds and lead their lost ones back home to the ofrenda to celebrate the life they lived.

 

Works Cited

Cartwright, Mark. “Mictlantecuhtli.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 22 Sept. 2018, https://www.ancient.eu/Mictlantecuhtli/.

Cervando, Angelita. “Día De Los Muertos.” La Voz, 20 Oct. 1993. ProQuest Central, proquest.com/docview/368284826?accountid=15152.

Howe, Natalie. “A Celebration of Life: Día De Los Muertos.” University Wire, 31 Oct. 2017. ProQuest Central, proquest.com/DocView/1957642671?accountid=15152.

Marchi, Regina M. Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon, Rutgers University Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/waketechbooks/detail.

action?docID=892360.

—. Hybridity and Authenticity in US Day of the Dead Celebrations. Ebook, Journal of American Folklore, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, proquest.com/docview/1415809054?accountid=15152.

Valdez, Andrea. “A Día De Los Muertos Altar.” Texas Monthly, Nov. 2009. ProQuest Central, proquest.com/docview/226958238?accountid=15152.