The Day of the Dead is a Celebration
El Día de los Muertos
(Day of the Dead) is a celebration of one of the
most traditional Mexican festivities. This Aztec ritual and
commemoration started at least 3,000 years ago. It is a festive
interaction that embraces the cycle of life. Mesoamerican natives,
African-Americans and Spanish blend their traditions during the
What is the Day of the Dead?
More than 500 years ago, when
Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered
natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual
the indigenous people had been practicing for at least 3,000 years, a
ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.
The Spaniards considered the
ritual to be sacrilegious and perceived the indigenous people to be
barbaric and pagan. In their attempts to convert the Aztecs to
Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to eliminate the ritual. But like the
old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die. To make the ritual more
"Christian," the Spaniards moved its date to coincide with All Saints’
Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.
Previously, El Día de los Muertos fell on the ninth month of the Aztec
Solar Calendar, near the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the
entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess
Mictecacihuatl, known as Lady of the Dead, who was believed to have died
at birth. (Carlos Miller)
El Día de Los Angelitos
(Little Angels Day)
Celebrations begin at midnight on
October 31st and last for two days. November 1st is usually dedicated to
deceased children, while November 2nd remembers deceased adults.
November 1st is also called "Día de Los Angelitos," because it is
believed that children instantly become angels when they die
Festive altars are built in homes
to honor the deceased. The altars are beautifully decorated tables
containing photographs of beloved relatives, papel picado
(decorative paper cuttings), candles, sugar skulls and marigolds. Plates
of favorite foods, toys and sweets for little angels and departed
loved-ones are the ofrendas (offerings) placed upon the altar.
El Flor Cempasúchil
Markets are filled with
cempasúchil flowers, the orange marigold wild flower that the Aztecs
used to remember their dead. Its color represents the tones of earth,
and it is used to guide souls and little angels to their homes and
Iluminemos el Camino
(Let Us Light the Path)
The ritual starts with a
candlelight vigil that beckons departed spirits to return to earth for a
brief visit. It is believed that the spirits visit their families on
October 31st and leave on November 2nd.
In Cuban Orisha traditions, Babalu
Aye is the African Power of death, disease and healing. A syncretism
with Saint Lazarus, Babalu is often invoked by those who are sick in
mind and body or their loved-ones.
Amaranta’s Tango with Death
Inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’
One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Death pays a visit to Amaranta and
commands that she weave her own funeral shroud. Once she is finished,
Death will take her away.
Fiesta de las Buenas Nuevas
(The Good News Party)
Before she dies, Amaranta’s
friends prepare notes for their dead relatives for Amaranta to deliver.
"She was sailing at dusk
carrying the mail of death. Those who did not want to write gave her
verbal messages, which she wrote down in a notebook with the name and
the date of death of the recipient. ‘Don’t worry’ she told the senders.
‘The first thing I’ll do when I get there is to ask for him and give him
your message.’" (Gabriel García Márquez)
(The Weeping Woman)
Not long before the Spanish
arrived to the New World, Aztec Shamans began to hear the horrible
crying of a woman. She would appear regularly, always dressed in a long
white gown, flying with wings. She would emerge from the Texcoco Lake
and travel through the mountains that surrounded Grand Tenochtitlan, the
great city of the Aztecs. The shamans believed her crying was an omen
from the goddess Cihuacoatl, announcing with great desperation that
Montezuma’s empire would be destroyed by men coming from the east.
"Aaaaaaaayyyyyy, mis hijiiiiiiiiitos…My
children...Lovely children of Anahuac, your destruction is close…Where
will you go?…where I will be able to send you to avoid your sadness and
tears…My children, your end is near!"
Las Catrinas Tambien Bailan
(Las Catrinas Can Dance Too)
"According to Mexican Folklore,
‘La Catrina’ —also known as death— can show herself in many different
ways. Sometimes she is dressed in a rather elaborate, festive way.
Sometimes she appears before us in ‘bare bones,’ to take us away when we
least expect it. Generally, however, the relationship which the Mexican
people have with La Catrina, is defined by a unique set of
circumstances, intimately tied with the history and culture of Mexico.
Death in Mexico is thought of as a welcome guest on certain very
important occasions, such as the Day of the Dead, or ‘día de los fieles
difuntos.’ As Mexicans, we believe that death, and specifically the
memory of our ‘fieles difuntos,’ which literally means ‘our faithful
deceased,’ gives us a strong sense of identity and rootedness in our
culture. This conspicuous —and perennial— guest is paradoxically also
associated with the joy of life in the face of the imminence and
inevitability of death. We only live once and La Catrina, with her
mischievous smile, pleads with us to seize the moment and through music
—and perhaps a little dance—, find life’s meaning."
(The La Catrina Quartet)
El Día de los Muertos is a
Celebration of Life
"Death" is not mentioned in many
cultures because it is said that it "burns the lips." Mexican culture,
however, plays with death and embraces it with celebration and love as a
part of life. (Octavio Paz)