Dia de Muertos, Honoring Our Ancestors
Updated: Oct 16
Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, the beautiful honoring of our ancestors is nearing, and I wanted to share my reflection on Mexican Dia de Muertos because the observance of Dia de Muertos is being increasingly adopted by 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.
"When you have two centuries of people who have not properly grieved the things that they have lost, the grief shows up as ghosts that inhabit their grandchildren." These "ghosts" can also manifest as disease in the form of tumors, which the Maya refer to as "solidified tears," or in the form of behavioral issues and depression. He goes on to show how this collective, unexpressed energy is the long-held grief of our ancestors manifesting itself, and the work that can be done to liberate this energy so we can heal from the trauma of loss, war, and suffering." —Martin Prechtel
While we are happy to share our beautiful ritual, Dia de Muertos must be treated with respect and approached with reverence, lightness of spirit, and an understanding that Dia de Muertos is not Halloween but a sacred remembering and witnessing of the joys and sorrows of our ancestors, and a celebration of the determination and strength of spirit of their descendants to preserve the soul of this 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 today 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 Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). November 2nd honors adults and is known as Día de Muertos.
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 August or September. 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, today's iconic character created in 1910 by famous Mexican printmaker and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. Although it is possible that Mictlancihuatl was his inspiration, no one really knows, and La Catrina has her own interesting story as a truth-teller and social justice warrior.
There are also regional differences as to how it is celebrated and how it is observed is influenced by a family's religion or tribe-specific history and customs (e.g., Yaqui begin their Animam Mikwame, Dia de Muertos observances on October 1st).
In my circle of family, friends, and community, we prepare for weeks in order to properly host our relatives who have walked on before us: our tatas, nanas, tias, 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 incense smoke. 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, and, in the case of infants and children, toys; we set out plates with Pan de Muerto and tamales, drinks, and incense burners filled with copal. It is not uncommon for us to take lawn chairs to the cemetery and sit there for hours, even all night, recounting favorite anecdotes and memories of special days with grandparents and parents. We might even 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.
As you begin your preparations, please source your Day of the Dead items from Mexican artists, bakers, and artisans. If you are responsible for putting together a Dia de Muertos educational program or special event, please consult with and employ Mexican/ Indigenous people rather than someone who is not part of our culture and community -- and consider giving back to our community in tangible ways as a way of showing your appreciation for us sharing our culture, food, music, and spiritual traditions.
In the coming days I will be posting photographs, videos, and articles on Mexican Dia de Muertos on my Curanderismo, the Healing Art of Mexico Facebook page, and I 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 Mexica, 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 remember 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. Still, those observances do not have the same origin or unique expression as ours.
Used outside of that,craftspeople as in a winter solstice celebration or other non-Dia De Muerto event, it 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.
You love Dia de Muertos because it is ancient and special.
When changes are made arbitrarily to a tradition, or worse, it is misappropriated, those changes begin to erode its power and its beauty. The same power and beauty that first drew you to it. Let us work together to keep Dia de Muertos special. Help protect this sacred observance.
Honor this beautiful tradition and our Ancestors by being a good ally: support the Mexican/Indigenous community by encouraging respect for Dia de Muertos, by buying from Mexican/Indigenous craftspeople, artisans, and bakers, and support us when we request that cemetery owners change their policies to allow us to follow traditional ways of celebrating the memories of our loved ones, including spending the night at the cemetery in prayer and song.
I encourage you to empower yourself by researching your family stories and delving more deeply into the origins and history of Dia de Muertos.
¡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. I encourage you to empower yourself by researching your family stories and delving more deeply into the origins and history of Dia de Muertos.
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
Originally posted October 04, 2019
Photographs by Grace Sesma, 2015 Dia de Muertos in Cancun with Council of Mayan Elders.