What is Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead? Día de los Muertos is a time to honor and celebrate deceased loved ones. The celebration occurs on November 2 in connection with All Soul’s Day. Unlike Halloween, which is characterized by goblins, witches, and the occult, Day of the Dead, was initially celebrated by the Aztecs to honor the memory of the dead. This 3,000-year-old Aztec ritual fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, which is the beginning of August and celebrated for a whole month. The “Lady of the Dead” or goddess Mictecacihuatl died at birth, but believed it was her spirit who officiated the celebration.
Growing up along the border in El Paso, Texas, a small town separating the United States and Mexico, we grew up with the Mexican and American cultures intertwined. As kids we traveled in and out of two worlds daily. The moment we left our casitas to go to school, we entered an American world but at home we had our own language, cultures, and traditions. In the meantime, some of our Mexican culture was watered down or lost in translation. As a mother of two beautiful children, my hope is to keep some of the Mexican traditions alive, but it’s taken some education on my part to consciously understand the differences.
Halloween and Día de Los Muertos is a huge example of how our two worlds melted together, however, these two holidays are quite different.
My grandmother, Maria Jesusita emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico at a young age. She tried to assimilate to her new country and did not always celebrate the old customs. As a result, this is not a holiday I celebrated. I heard about it, but never took part. At the beginning of October, while working on a fall recipe, I stumbled upon an article about Día de los Muertos and realized instantly that this was the perfect way to honor our grandmother. She was the matriarch of our family and now that she has passed on I want to honor her on Día de los Muertos.
The kitchen is where my grandmother spent countless hours preparing meals to feed her family and where she spent just as much time sipping coffee and praying the rosary. If she wasn’t at church or cooking, she was nourishing her soul with long prayers to heal her family or strengthen the weak.
Although my sister and I live in two different states, she in Colorado and I in California, we have agreed to introduce this holiday and tradition to our respective husbands and children. No year like the present to begin anew. We are both thrilled to educate our children about traditions that are part of our culture.
This is my first attempt at celebrating Día de los Muertos, so I will start small. I will create a temporary altar in a small corner of my dining room. According to tradition, an altar usually has candles, photographs of the deceased, flowers (usually marigolds), drinks and food. The belief is that visiting souls may be hungry from their long journey and the food and drink is nourishment for their journey back. This day is filled with eating, drinking, and telling stories of those being honored. I hope to retell memories of our grandmother to our children and reminisce in the times we shared with her. My hope is to keep the memory of her alive for both my children and me.
My sister Yvette — with the assistance of a florist, model, makeup artist, and professional photographer — created a breathtakingly beautiful altar. The altar here is filled with flowers, my grandmother’s rolling pin, some of her favorite food, photographs of her, and the grandfather we never knew. The woman dressed as death, wearing my grandmother’s veil and rosary, represents the return of her spirit. Some Native Americans believe that the wolf is a teacher and imparts a sense of family and loyalty. The wolf is an excellent representation of our love of family and loyalty to our grandmother.
Following is a simple plan if you want to take part in celebrating this holiday:
- Create an altar with lots of bright marigold flowers or flowers in season
- Place photographs of your deceased loved ones on an altar
- Prepare food and drink that remind you of them
- Place candles on the altar to be lit during your celebration
- Play their favorite music
- Retell stories of the deceased to those in attendance
Halloween has played a fun part in our families but now I am excited to introduce Día de los Muertos on November 2 to our families. It will be a beautiful way to honor our grandmother. The frightful visions we have of death shouldn’t be so morbid, they can in fact be, pleasant and joyful.
“It’s not death we should fear, but not having lived.” Anonymous
Photography by Jeanine Thurston