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Life and Death

Día de los Muertos celebrates life after death


Every year in early November, Mexican citizens celebrate Día de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead,” a celebration that honors the death of loved ones and remembers those who have died. The holiday has gained popularity with the movie “Coco” and in popular culture.

“The tradition is pre-Hispanic, before Christopher Columbus arrived in America,” Jaime Retamales, LU assistant professor of Spanish, said. “The tradition dates to when Mexico was ruled by the Aztec empire and is probably older than that because ancient Mesoamericans celebrated Día de los Muertos over 3,000 years ago.”

Retamales said the older Mexicans were not all part of the Aztec empire and were made up of different groups like the Zapotecans and Mayans.

“They believed that death is a transition into the eternal life,” he said. “When someone dies their souls will go to Mictlān, the underworld in Aztec culture. The translation of Mictlān means ‘the place of the dead.’ Mictlān is ruled by a god named Mictlāntēcutli, the god of the dead, and his wife Mictēcacihuātl, the queen of the dead.”

Retamales said souls go on a difficult four-year journey through Mictlān’s nine levels to move on into eternal life.

“In pre-Columbus times, the nine levels depended on how you died,” he said. “During the journey the souls must pass several challenges like crossing mountain ranges and traveling across a blood-filled river with jaguars.”

The ancient people would celebrate during the month of August and hold festivals for the dead, Retamales said.

“During the four years that the soul journeys through Mictlān, the people prepare the dead bodies in celebration of the dead,” he said. “Sometimes they burned dogs to go along and travel with the dead body to help the soul find their way through Mictlān. They also keep the skulls of the dead to celebrate the lives and aid in the journey of the soul. The queen of the dead, Mictēcacihuātl, presides over the ancient festivals and watches over the bones of the dead.”

The ancient traditions were celebrated before the Spanish came to introduce the indigenous people to Catholicism, Retamales said.

“When the Spanish saw the Mexicans celebrate this way they were shocked,” he said. “The Spanish did not like them celebrating the dead and said that they were acting like savages. They tried to stop the celebration but couldn’t because the natives said that if the Spanish did not allow them to celebrate the dead then they will reject the Catholic church.”

16Jessie Garcia, assistant professor of sociology, said the Spaniards incorporated Catholic beliefs as a way to get the indigenous people to convert.

“The Spaniards moved the day as a way to incorporate the indigenous beliefs into Spanish society with All Souls’ Day,” he said. “The indigenous people were incorporated as the lowest of society. Mexican history pretty much ignores them and anything about their culture as Mexico is trying to be a modern society. Mexico thinks of the beliefs as a past that they do not want to bring up. In the 1820s is where the prevalent attitude was recognized. Only indigenous communities celebrated the holiday and it wasn’t as spread as it is now.”

Garcia said that commercialization of Day of the Dead grew its popularity and spread the celebration throughout the region.

“Mexico, in about 1960, tried to promote itself on the world stage because they were going to host the Olympics in ’98,” he said. “During this time, the government put a concerted effort to incorporate the indigenous culture and turned the day into a national holiday. They also included it in the public school curriculum. At the time, only from Mexico City downward celebrated the holiday, but with the integration of the holiday in schools it spread north and throughout the country.

“Movies have also been a part in the commercialization of the holiday. The Mexican government realizes that there is money to be made from this, so they continue to incorporate new ideas and traditions every year. Immigration has played an integral part in its spread to America.”

Garcia said that certain communities within Mexico have their own interpretation to how Day of the Dead is celebrated.

“Some use different incense or the different characters that they utilize,” he said. “The most common character is La Calavera Catrina, who is the queen of the dead, and is based off the goddess Mictēcacihuātl from Mictlān. Some light candles in their homes or put them on the graves with food. Of course, they make the sugar skulls that you see around, but none of what they use goes to waste, so after the celebration they end up taking the leftovers and eating them.”

There are differences between what is celebrated in Mexico and what is celebrated in the United States, Garcia said.

“In Mexico, they hang out in the cemetery, have a picnic and commune with the dead,” he said. “Here in America, we just have an altar to celebrate the dead — we don’t go all out like they do in Mexico. The Mexicans believe that death is just another phase in life and here in the United States, we see death as the end of life and don’t really talk about it afterwards.”

Garcia said most people do not know that Día de los Muertos is a three-day long celebration that runs Oct. 31 through Nov. 2.

“The first day is for the kids, the second day is for the departed and the third is for all souls,” he said. “In the hometown that I grew up in, the people one year decorated the Catholic church in the community with flowers and have since left it there year-around.”

Retamales said people decorate altars to preserve the memory of loved ones and the legacy they left behind.

“Some altars include the person’s favorite things they enjoyed when they were alive,” he said. “The altars have pictures of the person to show the souls that they are remembered and are an invitation for the dead to join the living in celebration. People put food and drinks at the altars to invite the dead. It is a celebration of life. When Día de los Muertos takes place is the time of the year where flowers appear — people use the flowers as representation of life and death.”

Most Latin American countries don’t celebrate Day of the Dead, Retamales said.

“For example, I am from Chile and we don’t have Day of the Dead,” he said. “Rather, we have All Saints’ Day which is very different. On All Saints’ Day, we just go to the cemetery where we clean the graves and pray.”

While Americans enjoy the fun of decorated sugar skulls and brightly-colored costumes borrowed from their neighbors to the south, the celebration is more to remember the ones who you love and cherish the ones that are living.

Story package by Cade Smith, UP staff writer

Category: Features