Scholar in Residence/Past Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University
l Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) commemorating the lives of our forebears has been celebrated in Mexico from ancient times to the present. No one is sure about its exact origin or how the practice of mummification became part of the ritual, but it has been celebrated as a Mesoamerican cultural tradition for thousands of years. In northern Chile near the Peruvian border, human mummies have been unearthed dating back 9,000 years. In Mexico, the roots of el dia de los muertos stretch back to the indigenous Purepecha, Totonac, Otomi, and Nahua(Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, Tlaxcaltec, Chichimec, Tecpanec) who believed that the souls of the dead return each year to visit their living relatives, to eat, drink and enjoy themselves as they did when they lived.
Far too many ethnographers identify the origin of El Dia de los Muertos as a post-conquest phenomenon, thereby diminishing its ancestral significance by approaching it or valuing it as an event of the curious, the queer, and the quaint despite the fact that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has declared it part of our international cultural heritage (Kent Peterson, “Day of the Dead Dances Across Borders,” FNS Feature fnsnews @nmsu.edu, November 3, 2008).
El Dia de los Muertos is ingrained in the Mexican national consciousness as part of Mexican identity. And, by extension, of Mexican American identity. El Dia de los Muertos is not just a version of the widespread Roman Catholic feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. This suggests a European largesse, a colonial view that describes Mexican culture as a derivative culture. Equally diminishing is to equate or correlate El Dia de los Muertos with Halloween, a day of raucous disregard for the tradition of Dia de los Muertos. Importantly el dia de los muertos is not a Mexican or Mexican American equivalent of Halloween.
For Mexicans as well as for Mexican Americans El Dia de los Muertos is a time to both honor and to celebrate the lives of those who lived before us and have gone on to “the other world.” For the Aztecs, that other world was the prize, the world for which one suffered the slings and arrows of this world. Thus, to celebrate the lives of our descendents was for them to share with us the mysteries of that other world.
Dia de los Muertos (actually dias de los muertos) is one of Mexico’s traditional holidays and by extension has become a traditional holiday of Mexican Americans. Both observe November 1st and November 2nd as commemorative days honoring deceased members of their families (especially children) in a way unique to Mexican and Mexican American culture and custom, reuniting with beloved ancestors as well as family and friends, reflecting on death and the continuity of life.
There is a distinction between All Saints Day celebrated on November 1st and All Souls Day celebrated on November 2nd. On All Saints Day the graves of deceased children are decorated with toys and balloons and on All Souls Day the graves of deceased adults are ornamented with displays of food and drink enjoyed by the departed in life. Often, personal belongings of the deceased are placed on display.
In the Mexican and Mexican American tradition el dia de los muertos involves ornamentation and symbolic offerings of food for the dead, much the way in pharaonic times the Egyptians provided food for their dead on the long trip to the nether land.
In Aztec times, el dia de los muertos was observed during the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead). The ritual included homage to Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird-on-the-left), the major Aztec deity of war who protected the dead of all conflicts.
In the Aztec calendar, this ritual coincided with the Gregorian month of July and the beginning of August, but in the post conquest era Spanish priests moved it to coincide with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve “in a vain effort,” as Ricardo J. Salvador explains, “to transform this from a profane to a Christian celebration.” It is today a blend of ancient aboriginal and Christian elements.
In general, the activities of el dia de los muertos begin with visits by families to the graves of their deceased, decorating the gravesites with zempasuchil (marigolds and chrysanthemums) and other festive flowers. Candles are lit to guide the spirits of the departed “home” and the ancient incense (copal) is burned. The deceased’s favorite food and drink are laid out on gravesite altars (ofrendas). Prayers and chants are recited for the dead; and starting at 6 pm bells are rung continuously throughout the night, stopping at sunrise.
There is a story told about a Mexican American who was decorating the grave of his father, setting up an altar before the gravestone, and laying out food for the defunct. Next to him was an Anglo woman planting flowers and tidying up the grave of her mother. Amused when she observed the Mexican American laying out the food before the gravestone, the Anglo woman asked the Mexican American when he thought his descendent would rise up to eat the food. Whereupon the Mexican American replied that his father would rise up out of his grave to eat the food about the time the Anglo woman’s decedent rose up from her grave to smell the flowers.
After the night-long vigil, all go home, satisfied at having communed with their ancestors. Since it is a commemoration with a complex history, its observances vary widely by region. In the United States the activities are less elaborate but no less reverential.
The gravesite vigils of el dia de los muertos often take on the character of picnics, though nowadays a solemn family supper suffices featuring pan de muerto (bread of the dead, a rich coffee cake decorated with meringues made to look like bones) in which a toy skeleton has been inserted bestowing good luck on the one who bites into the plastic toy.
Gifts of baked sugar skeletons, marzipan death figures, skull-shaped candies and sweets and papier maché skeletons and skulls are often exchanged and set about the house as decorations. Macabre as these skull representations may appear, the Nahua-speaking peoples of pre-Columbian Mexico saw the skull as a symbol of life–not death. In the Mexican belief system of life and its continuity, skull symbolism is a natural part of the continuum of existence.
Dia de los muertos is not a morbid or ghoulish preoccupation with death; it’s a celebration of life. On this day families remember the departed by telling stories about them, celebrating their lives. To commercialize the holy day is to mock the import of the observance.
By: Felipe de Ortego y Gasca