Updated: Apr 7
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.