101: The Artistry and Ancestry of Dia de los Muertos


When I first arrived in Texas, I had a very vague idea of Dia de los Muertos. In childhood, my peers explained it to me as a “Mexican Halloween,” which sounded reasonable enough at the time. It might actually be a fitting analogy, save for the fact that Halloween now has more to do with candy and skimpy outfits than interacting with lost loved ones.


Dia de los Muertos celebration in a candle lit graveyard

Nonetheless, people worldwide are getting ready to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, I thought it appropriate to share a bit about the holiday and the artistry surrounding it.

Dia de los Muertos as we know it originated around five hundred years ago as Spanish conquistadors sought to curb what they viewed as a barbaric Aztec ritual of honoring the dead with food and festivities. Trying to meet the indigenous culture half way, missionaries tacked the celebration onto the catholic calendar to align it with All Saints Day. It of course had little effect on Dia de los Muertos, which is celebrated throughout Latin and Meso-America – even ironically in Europe.

Dia de los Muertos - Sugar Skulls

Dia de los Muertos – Sugar Skulls

In it’s most fundamental, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life. It is the one day when the spirits are awakened from the dead to visit with their loved ones. As such, the day is filled with food and festivities. Of course there are special delicacies that vary depending on your region, but all of the celebrations hinge on music and dancing. It should too. If I were roused from eternal sleep, I would personally want to have a good time. Why waste a day being somber?

Pan de Muerto - "Bread of the Dead"

Pan de Muerto – “Bread of the Dead”

Dia de los Muertos - adorned altar (image via: socialspecticle.blogspot.com)

Dia de los Muertos – adorned altar (image via: socialspecticle.blogspot.com)

Dia de los Muertos is also charged with artistry. Families flock to the graves of their loved ones to clean and decorate them, often with an array of colorful flowers, fruits, and personal mementos offered as gifts to the departed. Some even create ofrendas, which are small one-person altars adorned with similar items – even mescal and tequila.

(image via: jmndesdesutrinchera.blogspot.com)

(image via: jmndesdesutrinchera.blogspot.com)

Perhaps the most recognizable motifs of the celebration are highly animated depictions of skulls (Calaveras) and skeletons (calacas). The significance of white bone underlies the conception that every living creature is reduced to the same form in death. There is no delineation between rich, poor, large, or small. It is just a phase in the life cycle, from birth, to adolescence, to becoming a member of the community. Yet there is an eternal life about the skeletons and skulls depicted during Dia de los Muertos. Even the sugar skulls are adorned with bright colors in a paradoxical allusion to life beyond death. (Interestingly enough, in some regions it is customary to inscribe the name of a deceased loved one into the sugar skull before eating it).

Currently, Dia de los Muertos is on the decline as a large portion of the population is converting to Protestantism, which of course is more removed from ritual. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in the coming years. In the meantime however, I’m taking a moment to reflect on the lives of those I’ve lost – at least until I check out some of last night’s costumes on Facebook.

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