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11/2/1 (Dia de los Muertos) Article: Dia de los Muertos is not the 'Mexican Halloween'

Posada's Calavera.

by Lance Vargas

While often referred to as “the Mexican Halloween” the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, (Day of the Dead) actually has little to do with its Americanized associate. Though both events fall curiously close to each other, the similarities end there.

“It's nothing about dressing up or costuming or horror or terror that is usually associated with Halloween and this is completely different,” said Maria Figueroa, an English professor highly knowledgeable in Day of the Dead traditions. The Mexican Day of the Dead focuses more on the act of celebrating the life and death of lost loved ones rather than costumes, trick or treating and the like.

Traditions of “Dia de los Muertos” evoke a myriad of emotions from festivity to reverence. It is meant as a means of commiserating with souls who have passed on and lessening the dreadful thoughts associated with death by associating them with life. Always occurring on the days of Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, (in accordance with All Saints Day and All Souls Day), Dia de los Muertos is a recognition of the lives of the passed. During the celebration, the dead are said to return in spirit to mingle in the world where they once existed. To honor these returning souls, participating families either create an altar in their home to honor the returned spirit or visit the grave of the deceased to clean and decorate the site.

“There are different things that communities do regionally around Mexico,” said Figueroa. “Here in the United States, most families set up altars and the altars take the place of traveling to the cemetery and creating an altar there. Many families have moved to the U.S. from Mexico and do not have the opportunity to go back and visit the graves of their loved ones.” The altares are decorated with all sorts of items but certain things are necessary. Different objects placed at the altar represent the elements, a white pillar candle represents the wind, a burning incense represents fire, a glass of water to represent water and salt to represent the earth. “Those are the basic elements that are needed on an altar because they are the elements that every human being needs, whether they are in the spirit world or here on this earth,” said Figueroa.

After the basic elements have been placed on the altar, other objects are added to make the returning spirit feel more welcome. Photos of the deceased as well as objects that the person loved are included. If the person being welcomed back was a barber in his or her life, cutting shears would be a good item to place on the altar. If the person had a sweet tooth, candy bars should be offered to them. If they liked to sew, a needle and thread would be appropriate. Anything that would make the visiting soul feel more comfortable about entering the home of the living should be included on the altar.

“If I was making an altar to my grandma, she loved to smoke, so I would put cigarettes on her altar,” said Figueroa. “She loved to sing and dance so maybe I would put some cassettes or albums that were of her particular interest.”

In addition to the creation of altares or visits to the cemetery, Dia de los Muertos also involves an acceptance or even mockery of death manifested in images of calvera or skeletons. Popularized by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, the calveras serve to make the subject of death less serious to the living. Whether a person was a peasant or politician in their living existence, they are all inevitably brought to the same form in death, the calvera.

“He attempted to ridicule and laugh at death,” said Figueroa. “So that we are not so caught up in the fear of the unknown or one day dying. He put forth an alternative ideological way of looking at death.”