Los Días de Los Muertos

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

It’s October, the time of harvest and the turning of the planet to shorter days and longer nights. It’s the time of year when, for some, those who have passed seem closer to us. We honor and remember our departed loved ones all year long, however, in much of the Latino world, the holiday los Días de los Muertos marks a special time for honoring and celebrating those who have died and for asking their spirits to return to us.  The roots of this tradition lie deep in the cultures and practices of both the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ worlds.  Its deepest roots are in Mexico, but the Day of the Dead is now celebrated across the globe. In Mexico, these traditions and rituals vary from region to region, even from village to village, but all share a profound, loving, and respectful devotion to remembering the dead.

An altar from FWMoA’s Day of the Dead celebration in 2018. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The rituals of los Días de Los Muertos began long before the Spaniards arrived. Pre-Columbian harvest rituals and rites honoring ancestors were combined with Catholic traditions brought by the Spanish Conquistadors—interweaving the beliefs and practices of the Church with the complex ancient beliefs of many native cultures. All of these sources are still evident in the pageantry of los Días de los Muertos.

Los Días de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, also sometimes referred to as Todos Santos (All Saints), are generally celebrated on November 1st and 2nd as they coincide with the Catholic feast days All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  In many communities, the celebrations are both communal and familial.  Key are the setting up and decorating of ofrendas (altars) at home or in public places.  Ofrendas are decorated with photographs of those who have passed, food and drink they were fond of, objects that they used in life, fresh flowers, fruit, candles, and figures of saints and angels.  Depending on family tradition and region, there may be papier maché figures of Calacas (skeletons), strands of paper flowers, beautifully embroidered table linens, stars and suns made from palm fronds, and many savory, fragrant, and sweet treats.  Offerings may also include water, coffee, tequila, spices, salt, chocolate and tobacco — all meant to please, entice, and delight the visiting spirits. 

The decorating of graves may be a part of the celebration, sometimes with special food and drink carried to or prepared and consumed at the graves of loved ones. Many locales feature special foods and sweets like figures and skulls made of sugar, Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead), móle dishes, hot chocolate, and tamales.  There are Días de los Muertos fiestas, parades, markets, concerts, dances, and fireworks in many communities throughout the Latino world.

Four purple skeletons dance in the desert. Mountains in the background against a pink sky and raising moon.
David Martinez, Mexican, b. 1943. Fiesta de las Calacas. Screenprint, 1995. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the American Art Initiative Capital Campaign, 2013.44.3 Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

As the recognition of the Day of the Dead has become more widespread, it has also been co-opted by commercialism and enthusiastic, but uninformed, participants.  Inappropriately conflated with Halloween, zombie festivities, and costume parties, it has been pulled into the realm of pop culture resulting in the proliferation of mass-produced Day of the Dead merchandise throughout the retail universe. Traditionally, los Días de los Muertos artifacts, decorations, foods, and clothing were made by hand, often in techniques handed down over generations and particular to a place. Los Días de los Muertos appeals to all of our senses, and its rich mystery compels our participation. It’s not surprising that the whole world has found ways to celebrate this ancient tradition – though often in a manner that strays far from tradition.

La Catrina, Old Town, San Diego, 2011. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Slick.

At FWMoA, Los Días de los Muertos is a celebration of the beauty of this ancient form of remembrance. Ofrendas will be created by participants in our galleries honoring their loved ones or others in the public eye who have died recently. There will also be a community altar for anyone to contribute to and thus participate. This powerful and moving annual event will begin with a fiesta on November 24th, 2019. Bienvenidos a todos – welcome to all!

Los Días de los Muertos Terms:

  • Angelitos: (Little angels) Often used to memorialize children who have died.
  • Candles and flower petals: To light and scent the path for the spirits to follow.
  • Copal: Incense made of resin from the copal tree.
  • Calaca: (Skeleton) May be made of papier maché, cane, straw, tin, sugar, bread dough, clay or paper. Los Días de los Muertos participants may be dressed as calacas, their faces painted as stylized skulls – defying death as they take part in parades, dances, and fiestas.
  • Calavera de azucar: (Sugar skulls) Often adorned with the name of the deceased in bright glitter and colorful icing.
  • Cempasúchitl (Marigolds): The fragrance of the flowers of the dead guides the spirits, their name comes from the Náhuatl language.
  • La Catrina: The iconic symbol of death in Mexico, based on Posada’s 1913, La Calavera Garbancera and on Diego Rivera’s mural, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda. She reminds us that death comes for all, no matter one’s fine dress, social standing, or wealth; yet she also mocks death and makes us laugh.
  • Ofrenda: (Altar) Created to honor the dead, often built in tiers symbolizing the steps the soul must make between earthly life and heaven.
  • Pan de Muertos: (Bread of the dead) A sweet yeast bread, often round with decorations that symbolize bones and dusted with sugar.
  • Papelles picados: (Cut paper banners) Cut with fierritos, small sharp chisels that are hammered through several layers of tissue paper following a patrón or pattern.
  • Mariposa: (Butterfly) Monarch butterflies appear in much of the Días de los Muertos imagery symbolizing the souls of the dead returning to the world of the living.
  • Santos: (Saints) figures of saints, often included on ofrendas.

Come see the altars and masks at FWMoA November 23rd-February 8th.

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