• May 29th, 2022
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Día de los Muertos: A Revered Occasion

Ramón del Castillo, PhD


Día de los Muertos is November 2nd but actual festivities begin on November 1st when children that have passed to another existence are remembered. This revered occasion is a time when the living meets the dead to celebrate their love, their lives, and their legacies. It is often referred to as the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican celebration, a synthesis of pre-Columbian, Indigenous, and European Christian beliefs, created through the blending of two groups during the Meso American Period in history. The Indigenous populations died through a violent conquest but have been reborn through the birth of el mestizo and la mestiza. Many of the remnants of the old world have withered the historical storm of deculturalization as total syncretism was never achieved—the old world and the new world continue to co-exist.

Día de los Muertos is both a glamorous and melancholic time for Raza. This day is often misunderstood by those who lack the comprehension of the symbolism and conocimiento associated with Día de los Muertos.

From a philosophic standpoint, great Mexican Philosopher Octavio Paz in his classic book, The Labyrinth of Solitude, argues that the Mexican pokes fun at death, seeing it as part of life.  “He jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. He knows death and does not fear it.” During Día de los Muertos, it is not unusual to see Catrine and Catrina, two skeletal figures that reminds us that that death awaits everyone, something no one can escape. They are generally dressed in cultural costumes, embracing each other, dancing the night away only to fall into a deep sorrow as they see death in a mirror and with the intensity that they live life, they mourn the death of their loved ones. Paz further argues that the cosmic struggle between life and death is confronted every day. The gesticulator pokes fun at death; then mourns for those who have passed away on a continued cycle of life. As Paz states, “The opposition between life and death was not as absolute to the ancient Mexicans as it is to us.  Life extended death, and vice versa. Death was not the natural end of life but one phase of an infinite cycle.  Life, death and resurrection were stages of a cosmic process which repeated itself continuously…When comparing death to Christians that see death as a transition, a somersault between two lives, the temporal and the otherworldly; the Aztecs see it as the profoundest way of participating in the continuous regeneration of creative forces, which were always in danger of being extinguished.”

Día de los Muertos is both a glamorous and melancholic time for Raza.  This day is often misunderstood by those who lack the comprehension of the symbolism and conocimiento associated with Día de los Muertos.  As Manuel Medrano states about the spirits that roam the earth during this time, “I live where the dusk meets the dawn and the heavens meet the underworld. Crossbones and skull surround me as life and afterlife become one. I am the ghost of the departed and I come to visit those who will die. My roots are in two worlds and in two cultures.” It is a time to invite those beloved persons who have gone to another existence to be with us.

As an expression of love, the souls and spirits of the departed are honored with altares and ofrendas created by families who have invited the souls of the departed to join them. They are decorated with African marigold (Zempasuchitl) flowers, filled with pictures of their loved ones, gifts, and memories. Favorite artifacts that their loved ones venerated and food they enjoyed are placed on the ofrendas. Pan de muerto (bread for the dead) is made during this festive holiday—representing the souls of the departed. Sugar skulls, referred to as calacas/calaveras are created. Tamales, chocolate, and horchata can be part of the menu for the celebration. Copal is burned as incense in order to reunite the memory and souls of the dead with their living friends. We are able to visit with the spirits, remembering the good tunes and the bad times; therefore, eliciting sorrow as well as joy. At some unconscious level, these can become healing ceremonies to help family resolve unfinished business with the deceased.

In México, many calacas/calaveras are sent to friends and public figures to poke fun at their foibles or politics. Handmade figurines are created that show skeletons dressed in outrageous costumes and doing things that living do every day. Musicians, writers, cooks, poets and brides dress in outlandish costumes.

José Guadalupe Posada, the great artistic satirist, in his cartoons, created Calaveras (skeletons) and dressed them up in bourgeoisie attire. In reality, he was poking fun at them, reminding them that with all of their materialism, they would eventually all turn into skeletons. His work is renowned throughout México and Latin América. The skeleton is emblematic of Día de los Muertos.

I remember taking students from Regis University to Guadalajara, México during Día de los Muertos. At midnight we visited un panteón (cemetery) where thousands of Mexicanos had gathered to honor the dead. We listened to leyendas (legends) of spirits that had visited the cemeteries. As storytellers shared their work, one could feel a deep sensation of spirits roaming the cemetery, waiting to visit their loved ones. Mexican families lit candles, tidied up the space where their loved ones were buried and spent the night as spirits hovered over this sacred space.

As we enjoy this spiritual celebration keep in mind its intent, celebrate it, and respect it.


Dr. Ramón Del Castillo is an Independent Journalist. © 11-1-2019 Ramón Del Castillo.


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