• Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—is a holiday celebrated on November 1. Although marked throughout Latin America, Dia de los Muertos is most strongly associated with Mexico, where the tradition originated.

    Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. (Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar.)

    Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Dia de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.

    The most familiar symbol of Dia de los Muertos may be the calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), which appear everywhere during the holiday: in candied sweets, as parade masks, as dolls. Calacas and calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, often in fancy clothes and entertaining situations.

    Use the questions in the following tab (Questions) to inspire discussion about Dia de los Muertos, Latin America, colonialism, and culture.

    1. Dia de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America, including South America (Brazilians call the festival Finados) and the Caribbean. In the United States and Canada, the tradition exists only in areas with a large Latin American population, such as Los Angeles, California, or Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Dia de los Muertos predates the independence of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. Why do you think this is not a widely celebrated American or Canadian holiday?

      Answers will vary! Consider the region's history:
      •    Dia de los Muertos has its origins in Aztec traditions honoring the dead. The Aztec Empire's influence extended throughout present-day Mexico and Central America, while few Native Americans of the present-day U.S. shared Aztec traditions. They would be unlikely to adopt Dia de los Muertos rituals.
      •    Latin America was largely colonized by Catholics, while northern North America was largely colonized by Protestants. Though both Christian, these traditions have different religious calendars, and honor saints and holy days in different ways. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are more important in the Catholic calendar than the Protestant calendar.
      •    Latin America was largely colonized by Spain and Portugal, while the U.S. and Canada were colonized mostly by the British and French. National traditions influence religious celebrations. Even though both Spain and France were Catholic nations, for instance, Spanish citizens celebrated All Saints Day with family reunions, feasts, and festivals. Few French citizens marked the day at all.
      •    Protestant British and Catholic Spanish explorers had wildly different approaches to the native populations they colonized. Catholic missionaries often incorporated native influences into their religious teachings. They adapted Aztec traditions with All Saints Day to create Dia de los Muertos, where elements of both celebrations are retained. Spanish explorers were also more likely to marry indigenous people, creating a hybrid (mestizo) culture where such cultural adaptation is a way of life.

    2. In some of these photos, masks and other decorations are only half-decorated with calacas and calaveras. Why?

      Answers will vary! Consider the philosophy of the festival:
      •    Dia de los Muertos celebrates death as a part of the human experience: Every living thing will eventually die. Every human being, no matter how beautiful or well-dressed, will eventually be exposed as nothing more than a skeleton and skull. The half-decorated calacas and calaveras recognize this duality.
      •    The dead are a part of the community, participating in the same way they did in life. Although their flesh may have disappeared, their cultural associations have not. Skeletons representing firefighters may still ride in a fire truck, for instance,  or a calaca of a vaquero (cowboy) may still ride a horse.

    3. In many parts of Mexico, participants in Dia de los Muertos festivities wear shells or other noisemakers on their clothing and jewelry. Why?

      Answers will vary! Consider the culture of the festival:
      •    The dead are a part of the community, but invisible to the living. Shells and noisemakers will wake the dead from their sleep, and keep them close during the festivities.
      •    Many of the dead were musicians or enjoyed music and dancing.
      •    Dia de los Muertos is a celebration, and music is an important part of the joyous atmosphere.

    • Family members often clean and decorate the graves of loved ones on Dia de los Muertos.
    • In addition to celebrations, the dead are honored on Dia de los Muertos with ofrendas—small, personal altars honoring one person. Ofrendas often have flowers, candles, food, drinks, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered.
    • Dia de los Muertos is actually Dias de los Muertosthe holiday is spread over two days. November 1 is Dia de los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. Graves are decorated with white orchids and baby's breath. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, honoring adults, whose graves are decorated with bright orange marigolds.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Aztec Noun

    people and culture native to Mexico and Central America.

    Catholicism Noun

    type of Christian religion loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and the leader of that church, the Pope.

    conquistador Noun

    Spanish explorer or conqueror of Latin America in the 16th century.

    Dia de los Muertos Noun

    (Day of the Dead) holiday honoring deceased family and friends, celebrated on November 1 and November 2 in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

    holiday Noun

    period of celebration or honor.

    indigenous Adjective

    native to or characteristic of a specific place.

    Latin America Noun

    South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

    originate Verb

    to begin or start.

    ritual Noun

    series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.

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