All cultures have many different customs that they hold close to their hearts. One that went by recently that most people in the US are aware of is Halloween. On November 1 and 2 there was another important holiday, whose origins are in Mexican culture. The Day of the Dead, or Dia De Los Muertos, serves as a day of remembrance for many different aspects of life and death.
Dr. Patricia Pedroza Gonzales, professor of Women and Gender Studies as well as American Studies, gave an inside look on the customs and the many different parts of how they observe this important day in Mexican culture. “It is a huge celebration but it’s very strong in the south of Mexico as a country, in the center and towards the north it’s not so much,” Gonzales said, referring to the origins of the event. Gonzales went on to say, “However, I would say that now it’s like a global thing because many people from diverse countries know Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration.”
One of the changes that the celebration has seen over time is the growth of tourism around the event. “Now, through the years, it has become like touristic entertainment,” said Gonzalez.
There are many aspects to how people celebrate Day of the Dead. While there are some visual aspects of Day of the Dead that you see in videos, such as candle-lit shrines surrounded by marigold flowers, there are also aspects of the celebration that are personal to each individual.
“It is very personal in terms that everyone takes that time to remember that we will die, and that is a fact,” Gonzales said. “That is why we don’t say ‘Happy Day of the Dead’…I think that that is exactly the point.”
Gonzales said she learned all of the important things Day of the Dead symbolizes through her culture. “By my culture I learned that death is forever, life is for periods, and life will end…We cannot separate life from death.”
Day of the Dead serves as a reminder to not forget about your loved ones. “At the end, the real message is don’t forget the people that love you, don’t forget the real meaning of life,” Gonzales said. “Death is eternal…and we cannot change that, and so let’s remember that…so of course it’s about remembering your memories but in this case, it is specifically remembering the people that depart.”
Another important part of Day of the Dead celebrations is the symbolism behind many of the traditional decorations and offerings. “The mixing of indigineous traditions is like using flowers, because flowers represent the beauty of the planet…so we put flowers and obviously they are flowers of the season,” Gonzales said. “We use orange flowers… exactly like the colors of fall, exactly like the oranges or yellows that we see in the fall season here.”
Gonzales goes on to say, “We put bread because that represents the product of our hands, of course baking…All cultures have bread so we put bread so it represents the food that humans can create.” Other symbols used are, “Fruit, the seasonal fruit…that represents the food from the planet…usually a glass of water, because humans, we need water, we can not be alive without water… and the classical paper…the paper represents the air, it’s something that moves that means air is circulating, and so clearly we need air,” Gonzales said. These five symbols are accompanied by things like candles to represent the heat of fire, photos of family members who have passed and oftentimes tequila or other favorite alcoholic beverages on family “ofrendas” or altars.
As for the celebrations that go on during the holiday, they are nothing like the celebrations we experience in America. “We sleep in the cemeteries,” Gonzales said. “You put your altar at your house right, and it can be very simple…just as simple as a candle and a picture of the people that are already dead in your family…there in an altar, in your school, for children…and later in the city there is a huge altar where the government can put something, it’s everywhere…We go to the cemetery, in the cemetery we put all the same decorations, the flowers, the food, the tequila and we sleep there like camping.”
This practice, however, is not for all ages. “When I was a little girl of five, six, seven years old, no, we were not allowed to go to the cemetery…but in high school if you have the opportunity to be at night with your friends, of course I will go to the cemetery,” Gonzales said.
Many of the traditions and parts of this celebration are unlike anything in America, but the message behind it to remember the ones you love that are no longer with us is a message anyone can understand.
Meaghan Casey can be contacted at