Death is a normal part of life, if not the most certain part.
You may have heard of Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) before, thanks to different brands that have made it fashionable to wear shirts and use bags printed with lots of colorful “sugar skulls.” But before it became wildly popular and had its symbolic motifs appropriated, Día de los Muertos was more than just another reason to dress up all over again two days after Halloween.
Día de los Muertos is celebrated on November 2nd. A tradition originated in the South of Mexico, the date was selected after Catholicism’s All Saints’ Day (a day created by Pope Boniface to try to co-opt Feast of the Lamures, the pagan holiday which was the original Halloween). Traditional Mexican folks were used to celebrating their dead relatives, and in creating this new holiday they combined Aztec rituals with their new Catholic beliefs.
On some towns, a procession is held on that night. This is an organized walk that starts outside the church; then, everyone meets at the cemetery, where they sit next to the tombs and have a picnic with their dead relatives, including their favorite foods and music. Everyone celebrates under the moonlight, in the glow of their candles.
Back at home, the altares which are prepared by families days in advance remain all month. These are elaborately decorated tables featuring handwoven tablecloths, papel picado (flag-like cutouts crafted from paper), and the ofrendas (offerings). Offerings may include: lots of veladoras (candles), pan de muerto (bread of the dead), bottles of the dead person’s favorite drink, toys (if they were a child), flowers, etc. Most importantly, an altar must have the person’s portrait at the top center.
In school, children are still taught about the importance of the holiday, and there are contests to see who makes the best calaverita—a funny poem about a person who has already passed away. Often, these calaveritas are dedicated to dead celebrities and politicians. While this last one might be considered offensive to people of other cultures, in Mexico it is considered a form of celebration or honor—or even a way to make peace with loss.
It is believed that Mexicans don’t fear death, but the truth is that we see it as something normal: the most certain thing that will happen to everyone in life. Like mostly everyone, we do mourn our dead, but we also celebrate them as we must honor those who were here before us.
There shouldn’t be an issue with people of different cultures attending another’s festivities as long as they are respectful, but appropriating someone’s culture happens when a person wears motifs whose meaning they don’t understand or respect, or when they partake in “exotic” items that didn’t originate from local artisans or were mass produced in a foreign country.
Below are some photos of Dia de los Muertos as celebrated in the Mission District in San Francisco, California. The procesión starts with an Aztec dance and ceremony, where we all get cleansed with burning sage. People have the option of participating or observing. Everyone meets at the park, where there are altars of local families’ loved ones who have passed away.