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What is Día de los Muertos?

Tradiciones y significado del Día de los Muertos (Traditions and Significance of Day of the Dead)

Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a holiday predominantly celebrated by Mexico but celebrated as well by those in Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru. They each have their own twists on the holiday to make it their own. Día de los Muertos takes place on November 1st-2nd and is meant to celebrate and honor the dead. It is the ultimate family reunion by including those who have passed. Día de los Muertos traces back to roughly 3000 years ago to Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs. Their cultures saw death as part of life and chose to celebrate and welcome the dead back for a yearly visit. There are many traditions that come with Día de los Muertos such as: the making of the ofrenda (the altar), placing significant items on the ofrenda, and crafting beautiful meals.. 

The Ofrenda or the altar  is a core part of Día de los Muertos traditions. The ofrenda’s purpose is a place to put offerings and meaningful items for the dead upon their return as well as to honor and remember the person with photographs or personal items. Common items and offerings put on the ofrenda include: 

  • Pan de muerto (bread of the dead)
  • Papel picado (perforated paper; the colorful banners)
  • Velas (candles; sometimes religious candles)
  • Photographs 
  • Personal items which vary depending on the age/interests of the passed on.
  • Foods/ fruits (such as tamales, oranges, or sugarcane) 
  • Marigolds
  • Mantel (traditional cloth for tables)
  • Calaveritas de azúcar known as sugar skulls 

The items haven’t been picked at random, there is significance behind the traditional items. The marigolds are thought to attract the attention of the souls to the ofrendas. Some families scatter the petals to form a path from the front door to the ofrenda to guide the dead. Papel picado represents the wind and the union of life and death as well as the fragility of the tissue paper representing life and how short it really is. Pan de muerto is a type of pan dulce baked in Mexico during the weeks leading up to Día de los Muertos. Pan de muerto came from a fusion of the tradition of indigenous people offering food to the dead and the wheat which came from the European colonizers . The circular shape of pan de muerto symbolizes the cycle of life and death. The velas are like the marigolds, they are lit to welcome and attract the souls to the ofrenda.  

Calaveritas de azúcar are one of the first items to pop into someone’s head at the mention of Día de los Muertos. The sugar skulls represent a departed soul and traditionally have the name of the deceased written on the forehead and is placed on the ofrenda. The skulls originated from Pre-Columbian societies where skulls were displayed on a wood rack as an offering to the god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli. He assured a safe passage for the spirits to the afterlife. This tradition like many others was lost after the arrival of the conquistadors, but the calaveritas de azucar is a symbol still kept today in remembrance. 

Each ofrenda is different and doesn’t have to include every item. Anyone can celebrate Día de los Muertos, and especially this year, I invite anyone reading this to take part in the traditions because regardless of our backgrounds, all humans have and will experience loss. Death is part of life and that is something that we all share and can celebrate together and honor those we’ve lost. The most important part is the honoring and remembrance of the dead and the celebration of how death is part of life and not something to be mourned but to be celebrated. 

Día de los Muertos Events

  • Watsonville Film Festival in the Plaza- Day of the Dead (Sat, 4-9pm) 358 Main St, Watsonville, CA
  • Mercado de Muertos 2023: (Friday Oct 27- Saturday October 28) 335 Main St, Watsonville, CA
  • Día de los Muertos Community Altar (October 19th-November 5th) Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz, CA
  • Mini Day of the Dead Altars (October 28th, Saturday 1-4pm) Crooked Beauty Maker’s Space: Felton, CA
  • Día de los Muertos Community Altars at Villa Mira Monte (Saturday, October 28th) Morgan Hill

Dedicato a mi abuelo, Aurelio Magallanes Preciado (1934-2009) y a mi Tía, Otillia ‘Tilly’ Hernandez Enriquez (1934-20 missing)

Ava Preciado for the Mustang Metropolitan