El Día de los Muertos is not Mexican Halloween, contrary to popular belief. El Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that has its origins in indigenous pre-Colombian cultures that celebrate the deaths of ancestors through intricate rituals. Specifically, the modern-day Día de los Muertos draws mostly from the month-long festivities celebrating the “Lady of the Dead” in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar. In this way, el Día de los Muertos has significant cultural roots that represent the veneration of ancestors. Unlike Halloween, el Día de los Muertos celebrates the dead rather than fearing the afterlife.
In recent years, Americans have started grouping el Día de los Muertos with Halloween, especially when using La Catrina as a Halloween costume. La Catrina is a female skeleton dressed in European-style clothing, usually seen with either a flower crown or a floppy hat, sometimes a combination of both. La Calavera Catrina is used in many decorations and has become a staple of the holiday. El Día de los Muertos is filled with figurines and people painted and dressed to represent La Catrina.
The use of La Catrina and other skeletal figures began with the designs of Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. His design for La Catrina is a caricature of Mexican upper-class women who claimed the Spaniard culture over their indigenous roots. The cultural appropriation of La Catrina as a Halloween costume ignores the unique cultural critique that it was meant to address within the Mexican community.
Today, el Día de los Muertos is characterized by families visiting the graves of their ancestors to celebrate their lives. Altars, known as ofrendas, are decorated with colorful papel picado, cempasúchil (orange Mexican marigolds), sugar skulls, pictures of the deceased, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and food. The food is shared by both the living and the dead and is usually accompanied by popular Mexican traditional drinks such as atole or agua de jamaica. A variation of the ofrendas can also be set up within the families’ homes. Families clean the graves of their departed and offer their companionship as it is believed the souls of the dead are present. The Catholic Church is heavily involved as the date of the celebration corresponds with All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1. El Día de los Muertos in this way is acknowledged by the Catholic Church and shows the consolidation of the native culture and European religious influences.
Other Latin American countries also have similar celebrations due to strong native influences and the collective veneration of ancestors within these various cultures. The traditions are very different, such as in Guatemala where large kites are flown to help the spirits of their loved ones find their way back to Earth, but they all honor the lives of the deceased.
El Día de los Muertos is a three-day celebration between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. Generally, Oct. 31 is considered el Día de los Angelitos (the Day of the Little Angels), when the spirits of children come back home. Nov. 1 is when the spirits of adults visit and Nov. 2 is when the main celebration and grave visits occur. El Día de los Muertos is a beautiful holiday that allows for the celebration of those who have passed and not just an opportunity to wear a costume.
By Yajaira Ramos-Ramirez, Staff Writer