Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, is a long-standing custom in Mexico with roots dating back thousands of years.
In America, you have definitely seen the signs, usually connected with festivals: marigold flowers, calaveras (skulls), and papel picado, bright paper with cutouts. The first scene of “Spectre” and the film “Coco” both make significant references to the holiday.
Día de los Muertos is a day dedicated to honoring the dead and acknowledging the existence of life after death. Unlike Halloween, which was first celebrated on this day, the Day of the Dead is mainly about remembering family members who have passed away and fending off evil spirits.
According to Martha Ramirez-Oropeza, a professor in UCLA’s Chicana/o and Central American Studies department, the popularity of the Day of the Dead has grown nationwide since the 1970s due to the curiosity of young Latinos about their cultural heritage and the country’s expanding Mexican and Central American population.
People of Mexican heritage were compelled to adapt to American culture prior to the Chicano Movement’s founding in the 1960s by speaking only English and observing American festivals due to pervasive racism and prejudice.
People were taught that it was a shame for them to be Mexican. Regina Marchi, a Rutgers University professor of journalism and cultural analysis, told Axios that the Chicano Revolution was really an outrage over that.
The Day of the Dead ends on November 2nd of each year, starting on November 1st. It is believed that on those days, the departed’s spirits return to their homes to spend time with their loved ones.
Although the majority of people associate the Day of the Dead with Mexico, other countries—including those outside of Latin America—also celebrate the holiday in unique ways. In the Philippines, the first two days of November are also devoted to celebrating the holiday known as Undas. Like Mexicans, Filipinos visit the graves of their loved ones and create altars for the deceased.
In Haiti, the day is referred to as Fèt Gede, or the festival of the dead. People wear purple, black, and white to parades staged across the country. The Day of the Dead originated with Native American customs, especially those of the Aztecs. As part of an Aztec ceremony, Miccaihuitl was a period for paying respect to the deceased.
But Catholicism, which the Spanish brought to the Americas, had its own feast days, All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2), which also paid tribute to the dead. The Spanish combined their own holidays with Indigenous customs to create Día de los Muertos.
What Happens on the Day of the Dead
On the Day of the Dead, many visit their loved ones’ graves as a way of paying their respects to those who have passed away.
However, people either clean their graves and tombstones or adorn them with flowers, rather than necessarily going to grieve. While some people play music, others might pray.
The atmosphere is nearly party-like, replete with food, drink, and music. To keep the memories of their lost loved ones alive, people gather to tell each other stories about them.
This day is marked by festivals and parades in a number of Mexican cities. A lot of people might get dressed up and apply face paint to seem like naked skulls. Women would especially dress up as La Catrina, the tall female skeleton who is often depicted with a gorgeous headdress that falls over her head and an elegant gown.
Although characters like La Catrina have come to symbolize Día de los Muertos, the artist José Guadalupe Posada’s 1910 illustrations, which parodied the nation’s upper classes, are the source of the iconography.