Updated: Oct 18, 2020
Sharing my thoughts and reflection on Dia de Muertos because observance of Dia de Muertos (I speak here only to how we observe it in Mexico) is being increasingly adopted by people of other people of other ethnicities, backgrounds, and countries, who lacking a ritual of their own have found a heart-home where they can honor their ancestors and other loved ones who have crossed over.
While we are happy to share our beautiful ritual, it is important that Dia de Muertos be treated with respect, approach it with reverence, lightness of spirit, and an understanding that Dia de Muertos is not Halloween but a sacred remembering and a sacred witnessing of the joys and sorrows of our ancestors, and a celebration of the strength of spirit of their descendants to preserve the soul of this sacred pre-European contact tradition.
As a result of the Spanish invasion, forced conversion to Christianity (Catholicism in particular), and ongoing colonization of what is now Mexico, Dia de Muertos now takes place on November 1 and 2, having been merged with the Catholic All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.
Typically November 1 is to honor children and infants, known as Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Holy Innocents) and also as Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). November 2nd honors adults and is known as Día de Muertos and as Día de los Fieles Difuntos, Day of the Faithful Dead.
Indigenous peoples in Mexico (and in other countries where Indigenous people’s traditional territory extends beyond contemporary borders, such as the Maya) have been holding these celebrations for 3,000 years. In 2003 UNESCO proclaimed Mexico’s Dia de Muertos Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Before Mexico’s invasion by the Spaniards, these holy days took place in the month that approximates to today’s June/August. Mexika (Aztec) celebrated for an entire month: the first half of the month as Miccailhuitontli, the feast of the deceased children, and the latter half as Huey Miccailhuitontli, or Feast to the Greatly Revered Deceased (adults). Some say the festivities were dedicated to Mictecacihuatl known as the "Lady of the Dead" and that she corresponds to the modern day Catrina (that was created in 1910 by famous Mexican printmaker and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada), but it’s unlikely. There are regional differences as to how it is celebrated and the manner in which it is observed is influenced by a family's religion or tribe-specific history and customs.
In my circle of family, friends, and community, we prepare for weeks in order to properly host oue relatives who have walked on before us: our tatas, nanas, tios and tios and other relatives who will be returning to this realm to visit us during Dia de Muertos. They'll be knocking at midnight, looking at their photos on our altar, smelling the aroma of their favorite food and cleansing themselves in the smoke of incense. A pathway of brilliant flowers will guide them to our home to enjoy some time with us within whose hearts they yet live.We build ofrendas (altars) to their memory at home and sometimes in public places. Some altares are simple and some are elaborate. Often we hold vigils at the cemetery taking our time to lovingly clean headstones, place candles and bouquets of cempaxochitl (marigolds) on graves, toys (in the case of children), pan de muerto, tamales, drinks, and incense burners filled with copal. It is not uncommon for us to take lawn chairs to the cemetery and sit for hours, even all night, recounting favorite anecdotes and memories of special days and hire a small Norteño or mariachi group to play favorite songs that our beloveds enjoyed when alive. It's both a sad and joyful time as we pray, sing, and reminisce.
In the coming days I will be posting photographs, videos, and articles on Mexican Dia de los Muertos on my Curanderismo, the Healing Art of Mexico Facebook page, and hope that what is shared helps you prepare to celebrate the life of your loved ones while at the same time respectfully preserving and honoring this important tradition that is the religious and cultural legacy of the ancestors of Mexihca, Maya, Tlaxcaltec, Chichimec, and other Native peoples of what is today known as Mexico, as well as Indigenous traditional territories that today may overlap adjoining countries.
With respect, I ask that you please keep in mind that Mexican Dia de Muertos is a Mexican Indigenous culture-specific religious observance. I realize that there are other countries (China, Ireland, Britain, among them) that observe what may appear, on the surface, to be a similar custom, but those observances do not have the same origin or unique expression as ours. Used outside of that as in a winter solstice celebration or other non-Dia De Muerto event, could be considered disrespectful, especially when done so by someone who is not a member of the Mexican and Mexican-Indigenous community. By this I mean taking one or more elements of this cultural-spiritual ritual and using them in a different context than for which it was intended.
Honor this beautiful tradition and all of our Ancestors by being a good ally: support the Mexican/Indigenous community in encouraging respect for Dia de Muertos, as well as supporting us when we request that cemeteries change their policies to allow us to follow the traditional ways of honoring our loved ones, including spending the night at the cemetery in prayer and song.
¡Que vivan nuestros santos difuntos!
Note: As neither forthcoming posts on this topic, nor this one, are meant to be scholarly articles, please understand that not every detail or aspect is addressed.
Links to other resources:
How to Make a Dia de Los Muertos Altar, Mija Chronicles
Dia de Muertos ofrenda items at Mexican Sugar Skull online (Selected because they work with Mexican and Mexican Indigenous crafts people)
El Altar de Muertos y su Significado por Cultura y Delicias Prehispánicas, https://deliciasprehispanicas.com/…/el-altar-de-muertos-y-…/
Altar de Muertos Las Manos del Artesano La Jolla YouTube video
Photographs by Grace Sesma, 2015 Dia de Muertos in Cancun with Council of Mayan Elders. Click on images for slideshow.