• Ruben Contreras

Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead): Remembering the future

Mexicans offer a different perspective on death

In the Day of the Dead's ofrenda (offering) – as the altar is called – the souls returning will not get lost on their way back home since families offer guidance through candles.
Photo: Stock Image

The cult of life, if it actually is profound and absolute,

it is also the cult of death.

They're both indivisible. A civilization that rejects death

ends up rejecting life.


–Octavio Paz, “Todos Santos Día de Muertos” (All Saints Day of the Dead"),

El Laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), 1950.


In recent years, Latinos have made their way into pop culture in films, music, art, dance, TV series, the food industry, and more. Naturally, Latin American culture has suddenly found itself in the middle of this unparalleled effervescent attention that even Paris Hilton herself, back in the day, would have been jealous of. But in all truth, this is nothing new for Hispanics. It's already happened before, but not as vigorously and involuntarily as now: maybe this time, it all fell into place, or – perhaps – it was simply just meant to be – like death itself.


Unexpectedly enough, we would've never imagined that – from the vast and diverse mosaic that makes up Latin American culture – it would be an endless tradition such as Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) that would be summoned by media moguls, marketers, fashion designers, and influencers: the seers, charmers, shamans and conjurers of our times.


But on this occasion, Día de Muertos showed up in its latest incarnation, namely la Catrina – who was created by the Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posadas – also engraver, lithographer and caricaturist – and who initially called her la Garbancera and also la Cucaracha. Later, she was dubbed la Calavera Catrina in the 1940s in a painting by the Mexican painter Diego Rivera. River’s original message was that in spite of how rich you are in life, we're all the same in death.

Model: Ereni Perez. La Catrina, a quintessential character of the traditional Day of the Dead festivity in Mexico, created by the mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posadas, one of the latest pieces to be integrated during the early 1900's.
Photo: Rubén Contreras

A syncretic holiday


The Mexican holiday widely known in the Spanish-speaking world as Día de Muertos spans over November 1st & 2nd. It was born at the crossroads of Catholicism's All Saints Day, with Day of the Innocents dedicated to deceased children (also known as Miccailhuitontli in the Aztec culture) and All Souls Day (from Huey Miccaühuitl – also of Aztec origins) in memory of adults who had passed, with the indigenous festivities for the deceased and more specifically, with the mortuary rituals dedicated to routing the "soul" of the deceased to his or her space-time. While both Catholic celebrations are, in reality, minor holidays observed in the Roman Catholic Church, they're a common practice throughout Latin America's religious life. Nevertheless, Day of the Dead's epicentre is located in the central-south region of Mexico, where as many as 40 indigenous groups (approximately 5,872,000 indigenous people) hold diverse practices and traditions related to this celebration, symbolizing one of the most representative social facts of their community life, which can begin with either preparatory or ritualistic work.


By extension, plenty of interactions between family, larger groups, and even complete communities (including their deceased members) give way to integration with those coming from very far away localities as well. It's not atypical as we can see that this dynamic consequently permeates the lives of Mexicans in general, transcending in numerous ways and levels.

Model: Ereni Perez. Contemporary artistic depiction of Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the Underworld and wife of Mictlantecutli, god of the dead and Lord of Mictlan.
Photo: Rubén Contreras

According to the Aztec tradition, there are four places where – depending on the death that one goes through – the soul will reach his or her final destination. It is also the trajectory in which our sun moves through space-time. The first is Mictlan or the "place of the dead" where Mictlantecutli, "the lord of the death" reigns; next, Tlalocan ("Place of Tlaloc"); Tonatiuh ichan ("the house of the sun") – home to Huitzilopochtli, Aztec sun and war god (also one of the two main deities in the Aztec worldview), and, Cincalco ("the house of the maize") under the rule of Huemec, the Toltec people’s leader. Finally, in order got one’s soul to be able to cross the Chiconahuapan River and avoid falling off the slopes or simply, to have certainty in his general well-being throughout the four-year journey in the underworld, a Xoloitzcuincle dog – generally one the deceased had all his life – would be sacrificed to go along the journey.


A clear example of the diversity that one can find depending on where you go for Día de Muertos celebrations is the case of the indigenous group from Tabasco called the Chontales. Their festivities take place during the whole month of November while in other cases, it only lasts the first and second of the said month like the one that this very collaborator had the pleasure to experience in Veracruz. There, people from the Huasteca region receive the dead with some kind of carnivalesque party happening everywhere in the towns.



Where to go to experience Día de Muertos


If you ever plan to visit Mexico during Día de Muertos, the places you don't want to miss during this time to witness the colourful, unforgettable festivities are: San Andrés Míxquic, Mexico City (aka CDMX or Ciudad de México); Janitzio, Michoacán; Pomuch, Campeche; Oaxaca, Oaxaca; and La Huasteca, including the south of Tamaulipas, northern Veracruz, northern Hidalgo, and south of San Luis Potosi.


The festivities of Día de Muertos are so rich in culture and history that it was recognized in 2008 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


Everything on the ofrenda (offering) – as the altar is called – has its own meaning.
Photo: Stock Image

Throughout history and today, Día de Muertos, in essence, is a remembering of our ancestors: the Aztecs believed that we help balance our lives while we are here on Earth and that we also support our loved ones in their afterlife.



Setting up an ofrenda


Día de Muertos commemorates the transitory return to Earth of deceased relatives and loved ones and people start preparing things well in advance of November 1st and 2nd. Setting up multi-level altars is a great time for family and friends to get together and work for hours and hours: each level represents the Underworld, Heaven and Earth. Everything on the ofrenda (offering) – as the altar is called has its own meaning:

Piñatas and candles at Paraiso Latin Food Market.
Photo: Kristina de Guzman
  • Photographs: images of those who have died are quintessential to the alter

  • Papel picado (literally, “itched paper”) in various colours: represents air

  • Personal objects of the loved ones: to personalize the altar

  • Favourite food and drinks of the loved ones: to feed the deceased with the meals that they used to like

  • Marigold flowers: so the dead one rests

  • Copal incense: to clean the house from bad spirits so that the soul can access its house without dangers inside of it

  • Pan de muerto (literally, “Dead bread”): its circular shape refers to the cycle of life and death; at the center of the bread, the little "ball" symbolizes the deceased person’s crane while the cross-shaped strips represent the bones with which we are built and they allude to the tears of the departed ones

  • Candles: guides that guarantee that the souls will be able to get back to their former houses

  • Sugar skulls: they substitute the actual cranes that would be used in Pre-Hispanic times with the intention to honour their gods

  • Salt: purifies the soul prevents it from being corrupted

  • Water: mitigates thirst of the souls and invigorates them to go back

Typical Xantolo ofrenda at Tempoal, Veracruz Mexico, epicenter of the Huastecas festivity of "Todos Santos" - All Saints -
Photo: Edda Arizavalo

Something really worth mentioning is the disposition in which community members experience and go about during this time of the year: one has the genuine feel of a family reunion. It's a joyful time since the Aztecs thought grief was disrespectful to the dead. No wonder why Día de Muertos celebrates death with such devotion – full of colour, love and respect to deceased family members. Why? Because in the Pre-Colombian world, even in death, the deceased were still called to take part in essential activities for the community, be it to go to war, hunt, harvest, participate in magical rituals, and much more.


So to wrap up, perhaps in today's life where everything comes and goes in the blink of an eye, maybe – in the midst of a bland generalized exhausting transient digital era – the healthiest thing we can do is embrace our lives and...death.

We also chatted with some staff and shoppers at Paraiso North to learn more about their knowledge and experience with Día de Muertos or other similar festivities in celebrating the dead.

We also chatted with some staff and shoppers at Paraiso North to learn more about their knowledge and experience with Día de Muertos or other similar festivities in celebrating the dead.


Supervisor Karen Alvarado at Paraiso North.
Photo: Kristina de Guzman

KAREN ALVARADO, staff

¿En qué consiste la tradición de Día de Muertos en tu país? [What does the Day of the Dead tradition consist of in your country?]

Yo soy de Honduras y no celebramos [el Día de Muertos]. No estamos como muy arraigados a la tradición. Pero recuerdo que en nuestro país se celebra lo que es el Día de los Difuntos que también coincide con la fecha, que son, de hecho, el primero y dos de noviembre. [I am from Honduras and We are not as deeply rooted in the tradition. But I remember that in my country, we celebrate what is Day of the Deceased that also coincides with the date that are, in fact, on November 1st& 2nd.]