Growing up as half Latina (I am Mexican and German), I never really celebrated or participated in Mexican cultural traditions or festivities. I really didn’t know about my roots or know a lot about the culture behind my heritage. During my middle and high school years, however, I took Spanish classes to learn more about the language and the culture.
In my high school Spanish class, one of the holidays that I learned about was Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It instantly intrigued me. The colors, the decorations, the festivities, the symbolism…
Dia de Los Muertos was a holiday of celebrating life, family, and love. Unlike Halloween, where we learn to fear death, and that ghosts and spirits are scary, Die de Los Muertos celebrates the time that we had with our loved ones that have now departed this life, and honors them as they have moved on to the afterlife.
The multi-day celebration, or fiesta, is the one time of the year in which loved ones, both deceased and living, get to reunite. First, the souls of the young departed ones, or angelitos, come back to visit with their loved ones once the gates of Heaven have opened, followed by the adult spirits.
The culture surrounding the holiday teaches us that we should not fear death, but to actually become comfortable with the inevitability of life. The topic becomes less taboo with the traditional treats and decorations. You will find children often eating sugar skulls, which are meant to represent the departed soul, with the name of the loved one written on the forehead, and they typically have happy smiles with lots of colorful icing and special adornments.
The celebration is filled with flor de muerto, or marigolds (which is the symbolic flowers of the dead and are meant to attract the souls), pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread), sugar skulls, skeleton and tissue paper decorations (such as papel picado, or a special decorative tissue paper banner), delectable treats and decorations made especially for the holiday, the favorite foods of those that have passed, and ofrendas, or altars.
Families assemble beautiful and colorful altars consisting of decorations, flowers, treasures that once belonged to their loved ones, as well as their loved ones’ favorite foods, all to honor their departed relatives. These altars are typically built in the home, but some even build them at the gravesite of their relatives. At the cemetery, individuals can enjoy music and activities, all while reminiscing about their loved ones. The altars, gifts, and food are meant to make the spirits happy, and happy spirits provide protection, good luck, and wisdom to the family.
While meaning no disrespect to Halloween, it can be scary, spooking, and so commercialized with costumes and candy. But Dia de Los Muertos does so much more; it celebrates life and love, but also makes us stop for a period of time to reminisce about those that we love that are no longer with us and to reunite with them. Moreover, it emphasizes community and family and unity since everyone gathers together for the special celebration. Furthermore, it promotes selflessness, as everything, including the food, gifts, and altars, are meant for the souls of our loved ones all in the hopes of bringing them joy and making them happy.
That’s why I decided to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos. Because we need more holidays and moments in our lives where we stop to appreciate life and our family, unite our community, and provide those we love with happiness through our selflessness.