The Significance of Dia de Los Muertos as Cultural Practice
By Steve Pereira, University of Wisconsin
Concientización: A Journal of Chicana & Latina Experience and Thought, Volume 5, Nos. 1& 2, Winter 2009-Spring 2010.
Death in Mexico is embodied through the Day of the Dead. According to Brandes,(2003) the Day of the Dead, more than any other ceremony, provides a concrete indication of whatever Mexican posture toward death might exist. A celebration for the dead in Mexico has a profound connection with its rituals. Mexicans accept death as an unavoidable cycle of life for which they have a friendly attitude. During the first and second of November, it is believed that the deceased family members and icons that the deceased were buried with have special permission from God to come back to visit friends and family on earth. This observation, further clarified by Goizueta (2002), provides culturally symbolic celebrations such as the communal procession on Good Friday, and the use of altars as highlighting the fact that one’s family, one’s barrio, one’s ancestors, and God all exist in one relationship. This celebration in Mexico is carried through cosmological, spiritual, and religious beliefs. During this time of year, artistic representations of death are widely seen throughout Mexico. Brandes (1998) argues that the Day of the Dead challenges stereotypes of the death-obsessed Mexican by tracing mortuary image through undifferentiated iconographic tradition, cranial skeletal images of death that have become virtually synonymous with Mexico itself.
The Influence of Halloween on the Practice of Dia de Los Muertos
Dia de los Muertos has its origins in Aztec tradition, whereas Halloween is rooted through Roman pre-Christian Paganism. Since both holidays occur at the same time of the year,Catholics merged cultures with Aztec indigenous practices to create Dia de los Muertos. A few decades ago, and more so with every decade after, Mexico has incorporated Halloween into their society through a similar commercialized event to Halloweeen, although much more comical. Some of Mexico’s border cities, where there is more powerful influence from the United States, showed widespread Americanized versions of Dia de los Muertos.
Halloween in the United States is an annual event in which United States Americans dress up as monstrous characters. Many wear costumes to depict witches, vampires, goblins, zombies, and devils. Although both holidays may seem similar, they are different in meaning because indigenous spirituality overtakes Mexican cultural beliefs. However, as Halloween slowly begins to infect the northern regions of Mexico, retention of Mexican culture weakens. The fact that Mexicans are often exposed to United States ideologies, many Mexicans find it hard to retain their traditions and practices. Loya’s (2002) commentary on the need to own one’s indigenous history, is understood as providing the relevant backdrop to an increasing self-awareness of social justice issues that may be impacting one’s communal responsibilities. Additionally, ownership of one’s indigenous history provides an opportunity to “wake up,” which alerts an individual toward increased self-empowerment and a determination to change one’s life circumstances—that is, learning to effectively manage the various social and economic life forced that are immediately changing. Therefore, it is important to recognize and own one’s Mexican culture before it gets lost in Americanized customs.
Halloween is seen as an event that contrasts the traditional celebration of the dead. In the United States it is customary to see depictions of monsters and witches, something that Mexico tries to resist because these practices scare the living. Mexicans try to resist Halloween because it is not consistent with the ritual practices included in Dia de los Muertos. For example, altars built for loved ones represent the time for the dead to return home and visit loved ones. During this ritual practice, family members honor their deceased with offerings which consists of an object or food that symbolizes their life. Since Halloween excludes the elements of mysticism and remembrance of the dead, the meaning that Dia de los Muertos conveys of tying to life and death together is being lost.
These above are excerpts from his essay; click here for his sources and the entire article.
For more resources, visit the WVC Library:
Day of the Dead in the USA : the migration and transformation of a cultural phenomenon / Regina M. M Marchi, Regina M., 1965-New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, c2009
Skulls to the living, bread to the dead : [the day of the dead in Mexico and beyond] / Stanley Brand Brandes, Stanley H. Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub., 2006
Day of the Dead / Tony Johnston ; illustrated by Jeanette Winter Johnston, Tony, 1942-
San Diego : Harcourt Brace, c1997
The skeleton at the feast : the Day of the Dead in Mexico / Elizabeth Carmichael, Chloë Sayer Carmichael, Elizabeth Austin : University of Texas Press, 1991