Día de los Muertos is not Mexican Halloween. So what is it all about?

Mayra Lopez
Written by Mayra Lopez

Día de los Muertos has been celebrated in the U.S. since Latinos migrated to the country, but it wasn’t until recently that the holiday entered mainstream culture. 

“In the 1980s, we saw more people coming from other parts of Southern Mexico. Previously it has been more from the north and capital. The change in migration brought those traditions, like Día de los Muertos, to the United States,” said Ron Lopez, department chair of the Chicano and Latino Studies at Sonoma State University.

When the Disney corporation released the film “Coco” in 2017, it not only popularized Día de los Muertos among the Anglo community but also created a caricature of the holiday. Because of its proximity to Oct. 31, Día de los Muertos has been referred to as an extension of Halloween. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Although Halloween is often framed around horror and fear, Día de los Muertos is focused on remembrance and celebration. It’s about reuniting with ancestors who have passed and celebrating their memories. During Día de los Muertos, we acknowledge death as a natural part of the human cycle. We do not fear it. 

“The Aztec, before the arrival of the Spanish, they had a very complex interpretation of death,” said Laura Larque, a history professor at Santa Rosa Junior College. “They believed that when you die, it is the beginning of a new life. It is a transition.”

When Mexico was colonized by the Spaniards in the 16th century, they forced indigenous communities to convert to Catholicism, according to the University of New Mexico. Día de los Muertos became a mix of indigenous, Aztec and colonial influences, transforming it into the celebration it has remained today. 

Originally, the holiday was celebrated throughout October, but the influence of the Roman Catholic Church pushed it to Nov. 1 and 2. It is believed that during this time the underworld and living world overlap, allowing our loved ones the opportunity to visit with the living. 

In Mexico, families spend those nights at the cemetery with their loved ones. They bring their dead relatives’ favorite food, drink and music, and spend the night drinking, singing, reminiscing and keeping their spirits alive. 

During Día de los Muertos, altars are created at homes, community spaces or cemeteries to lead the spirits to the living world and remind them that they are not forgotten. Altars are made of similar components and are comprised of three levels. The ground level represents the underworld, the middle level represents the Earth, which usually holds the offerings from family, and the highest level symbolizes the heavens and is usually where the photos of loved ones are placed. 

The ofrenda or offering is presented to help guide the spirits of the family back to the land of the living. Copal is burned and salt is set out to purify the space and to attract the spirits. The papel picado, floating lightly in the wind, are hung and serve as guiding symbols to their living relatives. Water is also placed among the altar as well, to quench the thirst of the dead who have just taken a long journey from the underworld. 

Most altars also present the offering of pan de muertos, made specifically for Día de los Muertos. Cempasúchil (marigolds), also known as flowers of the dead, is also added to the altars. The scent of the flowers is said to be pleasant to the spirits. Its petals are used to set a path to the altars. 

On the eve of Oct. 31, altars are set for children, offering pan dulceatole (sweet corn drink), sweet tamales, candies and toys. Everything at the altar must be appropriate to honor children. On the eve of Nov. 1, altars are prepared for the adults who have died. 

Has the significance of the celebrations become diluted as it filters its way north to the United States?

In 2013, the Walt Disney Company attempted to trademark the phrase “Día de los Muertos” and “Day of the Dead”, creating a huge uproar in the Latino community. Many stated that their “culture is not for sale” and commented on the audacity of Disney attempting to capitalize on the holiday. The backlash resulted in Disney withdrawing their trademark application, but they continued with the release of “Coco”. 

To some it seems that Día De los Muertos has become a business. Large events in places such as Mexico City and Oaxaca now seem to cater to tourists who want an “authentic” experience rather than those who are honoring the indigenous rituals of Día de los Muertos. In the United States, cities have begun hosting Día de los Muertos festivals, which have been received in both positive and negative ways. “It’s become an opportunity for cities to promote themselves,” said Ron Lopez. 

We also see the commercialization become more evident, through things like “Day of the Dead” bar crawls, like one hosted by Stout Brothers and Beer Baron in 2018.

“It breaks my heart when it is so commercialized, it’s the capitalism of the United States,” Larque said. “When they take the cultural expressions of people and make it into something they can sell.”

Though the popularization of Día de los Muertos has allowed for people of other cultures to learn about and appreciate the holiday, it still in some ways has lost its spiritual roots. “I think that if the intention is to honor the cultural roots of Día de los Muertos, some celebrations aren’t doing that,” said Isabel Lopez, Executive Director of Raizes Collective. “I’m waiting for an event like what we do in Puebla, Mexico. We actually celebrate at the cemetery, and we bring the things our loved ones liked and we sit there and are in community with each other. I’ve never seen that here locally, it’s a completely different culture here, there are so many restrictions.” 

If you choose to celebrate Día de los Muertos, remember to take the time to learn and honor its roots and how the celebration came to be. “I would encourage people to research how the Aztec viewed the transition from this life dimension to the spirit world and what that means,”  Larque said. So that the importance of the day and how it has brought families together in celebration, both living and dead, is not lost. 

[Versión en español]

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