A look into the traditon of ‘Dia de los Muertos’, the Day of the Dead

A sugar skull workshop will was held by the Student Development Office in the Orchard Room on Nov. 1. Under Mexican tradition, these skulls aren’t just for you and I to eat. They’re also for your friends and relatives, the dead ones.

They’re part of an annual celebration going from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, a tradition that dates back 3000 years, el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

The Roman Catholic holiday is honored in Mexico, the United States and across Latin America, according to the website Mexconnect. In Mexico, it’s treated as a three day ritual festival, where families remember and, in spirit, celebrate with their friends and relatives that have passed.

On the evening of Halloween, the townspeople wear dead looking face-paint and parade the streets. Musicians perform live music. Bakers sell traditional desserts like Pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls). For some, the night is an excuse to get out and get lively in their community, but for others, it’s a key step to welcoming the spirits of their loved ones.

According to AZCentral, when the conquistadors arrived in Mexico more than 500 years ago, they witnessed an Aztec rite that appeared to mock death. It was celebrated in the entire month of August and presided over the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead”. Skulls were used as trophies and displayed during the ritual symbolizing rebirth. The Aztecs understood death differently than their Western invaders. To them, life was a dream and only in death would you ever wake. This optimism is reflected in the modern Mexican tradition.

The Spanish thought the practice was sacrilegious, but couldn’t kill the tradition. Instead, they adapted the holiday, converting its gods and goddesses to saints, and moving it to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

On Nov. 1, preparations for El Dia de los Inocentes, or the Day of the Innocents, begin. On that day, the deceased children are allowed to see their families. Ofrendas, shrines used to make offerings to the dead, are set up in the homes or at the graves. Marigolds and old photos are placed around them. Toys are left for the children to play with. Families sit at the ofrendas and reminisce until night, when they feel the spiritual presence has gone.

Nov. 2 marks the final day of the celebration, Dia de los Difuntos, the Day of the Deceased, where adults are honored. 
My mother, who lived in Mexico early in her life, remembers her grandmother readying a feast for her great grandfather who passed away years before. She prepared him his favorite dessert: colado, a jello-like delicacy made with corn, milk, cinnamon and sugar, and for the main course, carne con chile dulce, or pork marinated in a sweetened chile sauce. My mother and her family ate, remembered the man and at the end of the night, when everyone went to bed, a full plate of food was left in the dining room for him to eat.

“I never really believed that my great grandfather came that night,” my mother said. “But, it was probably an incredible comfort for my grandmother to believe that he was still watching over us.”