What is Day of the Dead?

El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is something that a lot of non-Latinx people are aware of but know very little about. I’ve heard people refer to the Day of the Dead as Mexican Halloween, which is ridiculous to anyone who knows about the tradition and is fairly disrespectful. As I’ve written about before on multiple occasions, learning about new cultures is an enriching experience that cannot be This is a lovely holiday with beautiful sentiments celebrated in various places in Latin America.

The holiday originated in Mexico prior to the colonization of Latin America. The Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people considered it disrespectful to mourn the dead, because their afterlife was just another phase of life. The dead were still alive in memory and in spirit, and they could return to Earth to visit loved ones on the Day of the Dead. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived and along with them the spread of Catholicism, the holiday was adopted and mixed with Catholic traditions–a pretty common practice in colonialism. Today’s traditions combines pre-Hispanic and Catholic ideas to celebrate the holiday.

Dia de los Muertos is most widely celebrated in Mexico. The celebration varies from region to region, and not everyone celebrates it. Mexico City has a big parade, for example, while the people in the Pátzcuaro countryside take canoes out on Pátzcuaro lake and light candles in remembrance of loved ones. There’s a week long festival in Aguascalientes, and people in Mixquic clean and decorate the graves of love ones with flowers and candles. Fairly common foods are pan de muertos, a skull-decorated sweet bread, and pulque, a drink made from fermented agave syrup. Ofrendas, altars made in private homes or cemeteries, are often set up to welcome remembered loved ones back to their family’s home. They are decorated with pictures of the deceased and often their favorite foods and drinks. And, of course, there are the widely recognizable skull designs which are used to decorate pastries, paintings, and perforated paper art.

There’s something beautiful about this holiday and the connection it allows people to feel with their loved ones. The idea of a dead friend or family member returning to see those still alive in this manner is pretty unique, at least among the traditions I’m knowledgeable about. (Please let me know about other belief systems in the comments so I can learn more). In most Christian beliefs, the afterlife is very separate from Earth. Reincarnation involves your loved ones returning, but in a different form without memories of their past lives. Beliefs involving ghosts often involve spirits trapped on Earth rather than willingly returning. The Day of the Dead has an interesting balance of a separated afterlife and the ability to occasionally return to Earth, and it is a very wholesome, positive holiday.

With any holiday which carries cultural importance, it’s important to be respectful of the traditions, so avoid being ignorant about how you participate in Day of the Dead, from actually attending a cultural event or simply purchasing a skull decoration. Learn more about Dia de los Muertos to avoid being disrespectful. From an ethical standpoint, nobody is under any obligation to learn about all of the holidays they don’t celebrate. However, it’s important to be educated about this one because decorative symbols are readily available in most places, and the cultural appropriation of these symbols is fairly widespread while knowledge of the holiday is not.

I’ve written about cultural appropriation in the past, so I won’t go too deep into it now. Basically, it’s when people from the majority culture use things from a minority culture in a disrespectful way. Using cultural or religious symbols as costumes or decorations is one of the more common ways this happens. There is nothing wrong with learning more about a culture or being involved with cultural activities, but it is imperative to be well informed about what you are doing and why you are doing it. That being said, Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful holiday well worth learning about. Go to local celebrations hosted by people who know what they’re doing–if you’re in college, your Spanish club probably has plans. Otherwise, many cities with a decent Mexican population have events. Movies like Coco or The Book of Life showcase the holiday in an informed, positive light as well.

Do you celebrate Dia de los Muertos and have stories about it? Let us know in the comments!



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I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.

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