Dia de los Muertos festivities invite a multitude of ways to celebrate

Remembering the dead with love and admiration

As Halloween ends, El Dia de los Muertos soon follows on Nov. 1 and 2, with joyous memorializations of the dead and a reminder that all people share the same fate.  

Contrary to some popular perceptions, Dia de los Muertos is anything but morbid. These two days are dedicated to loved ones who have passed away and to the idea that death is not something to fear.

A Personal Tradition

The holiday's connection to passed loved ones is part the tradition of creating altars for the dead to visit and enjoy. These altars include pictures of loved ones and specific items or foods that connect them to when they were living. These physical reminders are called ofrendas.

Jesus Rosales, an associate professor and faculty head of Spanish and Portuguese, described a picture of his parents that he likes to use for an altar every year. It is of them on a trip to New York City with the World Trade Center in the background.

"What I like about this picture is in the back you see the Twin Towers," Rosales said. "So, the idea is that we are not only celebrating the lives of my parents here, but also in memory of all the people who died on that tragic day."

But there are more items than just pictures used to decorate an altar, and some serve a particular spiritual purpose.

Jesus Galan Diaz, a graduate student in Spanish and Spanish teaching assistant, said the tradition of Mexican marigolds, or cempasuchil, is a key component to the altar.

"You make a window with the flowers," he said. "It's like a portal for the dead to pass through and enjoy the altar."

A Growing Geography

El Dia de los Muertos comes from central and southern Mexico, but Rosales said it has spread throughout Central America and the southwestern United States. 

"In Mexico, it's celebrated very much in the interior of the country, like the Oaxaca area," he said. "It became a national holiday, in a way, so it has extended to all parts of the country."

Angelica Amezcua, a doctoral student in Spanish linguistics, said that because of the spread of the holiday, people create altars in many places, rather than confining the celebration to the home.

"In certain states in Mexico, it is a custom to go to the grave and have an ofrendas there," she said. Amezcua said her own celebration also differs. 

"At home, I just do an altar with my loved ones, but in the community, there is dancing and entertainment and a community altar," she said.

A Popular Future

Increased popularity of Dia de los Muertos has lead to more people celebrating and the marketing of popular merchandise. Rosales uses a napkin with a picture of the iconic sugar skull on it to decorate.

"They sell all kinds of stuff now because it's kind of been commercialized," Rosales said. "Now they have, for example, napkins with the skull ... and little skeletons."

Amezcua said she is glad the holiday has become more popular, but she said she is worried that it could be misappropriated when people paint their faces as the skull for Halloween.

"A lot of people start using the (skull) as a costume for Halloween," she said. "But, this is a ceremony and represents the duality between life and death." 

Genevieve Gandara, an elementary education sophomore, said this is her first time celebrating Dia de los Muertos, and she wants to continue it in the future.

"I like the idea of bringing a picture of a loved one that passed away to remember them," she said. "In the future, if I have kids, I want them to incorporate it in their festivities."

Reach the reporter at ihaugen@asu.edu and follow @haugen_dazs on Twitter. 

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