Día de los Muertos

On November 2, many people recognized a holiday called Día de los Muertos. Día de los Muertos is a celebration to remember and honor loved ones who have passed away. People also remember good times spent with their relatives who have passed away. This holiday was first celebrated in Mexico, but overtime it has spread around Latin America. In Mexico, people do a lot of special things to show respect for those who for any reason are not any longer with us. According to Berkeley High School (BHS) student Rafael Velazquez, who grew up in Mexico, “They go to the cemetery and adorn the graves with their favorite food, flowers, and special objects.” In this column, readers will learn about some of the ways people celebrate Día de los Muertos.

Ofrenda

An ofrenda is an altar that contains many items. It mainly consists of the loved one’s favorite food and drinks. It is used to show that those who have passed away are not forgotten, and that we really love and care about them. People construct the ofrenda by putting up a table with papel picado (colorful paper cut with artistic designs). This is a decoration that is not only found in the ofrenda, but also in the streets and cemetery hanging over people’s heads. It can be designed in many shapes, like skulls, bones, or any other object. It also is very colorful. People also put up pictures of beloved ancestors, and display pitchers, pots, casseroles, candles, beans, chocolates, and liqueur. These objects are a gift offered with appreciation, gratitude, or veneration. Another reason we create ofrendas is so that we can keep actively thinking about the people we care about. For example, we add: family, friends, and famous people. We remake our altars every year to keep remembering the things they liked when they were alive. 

Sugar Skulls (Calaveritas)

Sugar skulls are called calaveritas in Spanish, and they are a kind of candy made mostly of sugar. They are made with the purpose to show that death is only a part of life that everyone has to pass through, even if we are afraid of it. The skull symbol originates from the Nahuatl population, the people indigenous to Mexico and Central America (some of the Nahuatl are more commonly known as Aztecs). Instead of sugar, the Nahuatl used the actual skulls of people that had been given in sacrifice to goddesses. After this area was colonized by Spain, this tradition was changed, and instead of using real skulls the Spanish conquerors brought recipes from the Middle East that are now used to make the sugar skulls. You can find this candy as part of an ofrenda with the name of the person being honored, but this is not the only place where they can be found. They are also in candy stores and even on our desks. Calaveritas is not the only food that is made; people also make a kind of bread known as Pan de Muertos. This bread got its name from its shape, which represents the cycle of life, the bones that we are made of, the goddesses, and the skull of death.    

Cempazuchitl or Marigold

The cempazuchitl (or marigold in English) is a kind of flower that is used to decorate tombs, graveyards, streets, houses and altars. A story that is told about the Cempazuchil says that the flower protects the soul of death from gaining any bad energy or bad spirits, and guides the souls on the way back to home. Its name means flower of many petals. Marigold represents the coming date of November 2 or Día de los Muertos. Thanks to the smell and color, it has become one of the most important elements for decorations on the holiday. 

Alebrije

An alebrije is like a pet that guides each person’s soul, so it does not get lost on the way to visit their living relatives on Día de los Muertos. It can be a dog, a cat, or any other animal, and they are normally very colorful. This word became popular in Mexico by the middle of the 20th century, but the idea of animal companions is much older. The most iconic of all the alebrijes is a dog named xoloitzcuintle, a real breed of hairless dogs. For the Aztecs, this dog was very sacred because it was thought to be a gift from an Azteca god Xolotl to be the guide for death that travels through the underworld. In fact, the word xoloitzcuintle is a combination of the Nahuatl word for dog and the god’s name. Picture Miguel’s dog Dante, from the Pixar movie Coco, and you’ll have a sense of what a xolo dog looks like in real life, as well as alebrije form. 

 Why do people choose November 2? 

People chose November 2 to celebrate Día de los Muertos because it relates to Catholic holidays. As many people know, October 31 was known as “All Hallow’s Eve,” while November 1 is the day of the children and November 2 is All Souls Day. These Catholic holidays were celebrated across Europe, and colonizers eventually brought them to Central America. However, at the end of each harvest season, Indigenous Central Americans also created rituals in order to show respect for the dead. When the Spanish came to America and brought their own traditions, both celebrations got mixed together. That is how it became the magnificent holiday that we know today. It has both Catholic and Mayan influence, but we can determine that it is a bit more Catholic because it became famous when the colonizers spread the Catholic religion through the Indigenous population.  

How is Día de los Muertos celebrated around the world? 

Around the world Día de los Muertos is celebrated in many different ways. In Oakland, for example, the Fruitvale neighborhood has welcomed for 25 years thousands of guests to the outdoor, family-friendly and free event to commemorate Día de los Muertos. This festival exhibits live music, fun games for all ages, rides, and other activities. Of course, there is no way that altars would be missing from the celebration. Altars are created by the community members to pay their respects to the dead. In Los Angeles people dress up in calaca (skeleton) costumes and perform dances. You can also find a variety of traditional Mexican food. People also go to graves to build ofrendas, decorating them with sugar skulls, marigolds and the deceased’s favorite possessions. Marlene Ortigoza-Martinez, a senior at BHS who was raised in Mexico, describes how people in Mexico dress as Catrinas or Catrines, skeleton figures with big dresses, sombreros and other fancy clothes. She also describes the music someone might hear on this day. “Most of the music they play is called mariachi, and sometimes it can get emotional,” she explained. In El Salvador, people go to graveyards and adorn them with flowers. The most popular flower decorations are made of paper and wire and surrounded with plastic and paper as well. They are known as crowns and can be found in stores. People use this kind because natural flowers are expensive and hard to find. They also attend a special mass at church to honor the dead. This can happen after or before going to the cemetery. People cook, share, and eat a dish called Ayote en Miel (squash in honey). This is a typical dish at this time because the candy that people use to make it is derived from sugar cane juice, and squashes are produced at this time as well.

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