If you thought the American spooky season ended on October 31st you thought wrong. In cities all over the U.S., many are gathering to commemorate their loved ones this weekend with Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, celebrations. Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, Latin America and countries with a significant Mexican (or Mexican American) population, like the United States.
With over 52 million Latinos in the U.S., a majority of which are of Mexican descent, cultural traditions like the Day of the Dead are becoming more and more a part of the American fabric. By mid-October, U.S. cities with large Mexican American populations—Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Miami, just to name a few—are preparing to celebrate the dead.
‘A day celebrating the dead?’ you ask. Yes. Despite its morbid name, Day of the Dead celebrations actually commemorates the lives of friends and family members who have passed away. During this two-day celebration between November 1st (All Saints Day) and November 2nd (All Souls Day), families gather to pay homage to those who have died. They build public and private altars, or ofrendas, in honor of the deceased. Many of the altars are laden with brightly colored decorations like the papel picado, (brightly colored tissue paper flags with hand-cut designs), marigolds (the Mexican flower of death), sweet breads and the favourite foods of the deceased. According to popular Mexican folkloric belief, the souls of the dead have permission to return to earth on All Saints Day and All Souls Day of each year. With this in mind, the celebrants build the altars in hopes of enticing their loved ones to return for a family reunion with the living. For others, it is a time for families to visit the grave sites of loved ones and hold candle light vigils.
Day of the Dead can be traced back to the Aztecs who celebrated with a festival for the goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl, and the Catholic Spanish conquistadors’ All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. The indigenous cultures of Mexico honor the Lady of the Dead, the modern La Catrina. In Mexican folk culture, the Catrina, popularized by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, is the skeleton of a high-society woman and one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and the U.S. Skulls, or calaveras, are part of the celebration as well. In many cases, the altars will be covered with skulls made out of paper mache or sugar.
Day of the Dead celebrations happen in major cities all over the U.S. Tucson, Arizona hosts the All Souls Procession has part of its Day of the Dead festivities. Likewise, Old Town San Diego in California hosts a very traditional two-day celebration culminating in a candlelight procession to the historic El Campo Santo Cemetery. Los Angeles, home to nearly 5 million Latinos, throws one of the biggest Day of the Dead celebrations of them all. Olvera Street, the oldest part of downtown Los Angeles, celebrates Dia de los Muertos for nine days as part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. This celebration of departed loved ones includes nine evenings of colourful processions, altar displays, music and refreshments.
Though the imagery associated with Day of the Dead can appear somber, the holiday is very family oriented. It is about community, life celebration—as witnessed by the feasting, dancing and parading—it is about family and reunion. The rising influence of the Latino culture on the United States is witnessed by the many Day of the Dead celebrations happening all over the U.S. this weekend.
If you would like to learn more about the Day of the Dead or the Mexican American culture in the United States, check out the stock at your local Norfolk County Library. Available in the Norwich Millennium Library are Fiesta: Days of the Dead & Other Mexican Festivals by Chloe Sayer and The Days of the Dead: Los Dias de Muertos by Rosalind Rosoff Beimler. You can search the catalog here: http://norlink.norfolk.gov.uk/