Dr. Marcos Campillo-Fenoll, one of the many Spanish professors at West Chester University, was born in Spain. Because of that, he had no idea what “Día de los Muertos” was about. That was until he came to America, where he met some friends from Mexico.
“I was surprised when I was exposed to the celebratory character of ‘Día de los Muertos’ with my graduate school colleagues,” Campillo-Fenoll said. “Since then, I participate occasionally with Mexican friends in their celebrations.” As Americans celebrate Halloween, Latinx families celebrate their holiday known as Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), which typically occurs on the first and second days of November.
Outside of Mexico, this holiday is prevalent in the United States; several other countries celebrate it too — though it is less popular than in the Americas — such as New Zealand and the Philippines.
During the holiday, families clean their ancestor’s gravestones. According to the Oxford Dictionary, this is “an obligation and shows great respect for the elderly, parents, grandparents, and other family members who have passed on.” While cleansing them, family members also place flowers and wreaths on the graves.
In public, there are altars with shrines called “ofrendas.” These ofrendas contain photographs of the deceased loved one, a pan de muerto (bread of the dead in Spanish), calaveras (skulls), a sweet aroma-laced flower known as “cempasuchitl,” favorite foods to represent “the crops of the Earth,” papel picado (perforated paper) and candles to define a “lighted path” back into life.
Dancing also plays a massive role in the celebration. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History explains that dancing is an offering that brings joy and celebration to their ancestors’ spirits during the festive celebration.
Although both Día de Los Muertos and Halloween occur one day apart from each other, neither of them are related. On top of that, “Halloween revolves around darkness, death, ghosts, witches, candy, and costumes,” while Día de los Muertos focuses exclusively on remembering those who passed.
The University of Colorado in Denver explains that the holiday began thousands of years ago, much more prolonged than All Hallows’ Eve, back when the indigenous Aztecs and Nahua were still around in what is now Latin America.
When a person died back in Mesoamerican culture, it was said that they perished in the “Chicunamitclán,” which means the “Land of the Dead” in Nahuatl. Chicunamitclán was a difficult nine-level voyage that each Aztec took to meet what was considered their resting place, known as the “Mitclán.”
The Oxford Dictionary also described how the holiday began as All Hallows’ Day on Nov. 1 in the ninth century. Two centuries later, the Catholic Church also crafted All Souls’ Day for Nov. 2 to honor those that perished on the Earth.
From there, “ancient customs fused with Christian rites and became a symbolic celebration that replaced such practices as feasting on graves.”
Since its inception, Día de los Muertos has become an internationally recognized holiday. UNESCO added the holiday to its “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2008 and became the focal point of the critically and commercially successful 2017 Pixar film Coco.
By learning about this aspect of Latinx culture, as Dr. Campillo-Fenoll did, he details how he has, “participated in celebrations because of my years in the U.S. in contact with Latinx/Mexican cultures and working professionally with Latin American issues.”
Ben Slomowitz is a fourth-year media & culture major. firstname.lastname@example.org
- “The Dances of Día De Los Muertos.” MAH, https://www.santacruzmah.org/blog/dance.
- “Indigenous Festivity Dedicated to the Dead.” UNESCO Culture Sector – Intangible Heritage – 2003 Convention : 2014, https://web.archive.org/web/20141011212818/http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/RL/00054.
- “Latina/o/X Studies: What Is a Dia De Los Muertos Ofrenda/Altar?” Guides, https://libguides.library.cpp.edu/latinx/ddlmofrenda.
- Oboler, Suzanne, and Deena J González. “Día De Los Muertos.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005, pp. 502–503.
- “Origins: Pre-Columbian & European.” Origins, National Hispanic Cultural Center, https://online.nationalhispaniccenter.org/dia-de-los-muertos/origins.html.
- Santana, Diddiery. “It’s Not Either/or. It’s Both. Halloween and Día De Los Muertos.” It’s Not Either/Or. It’s Both. Halloween and Día De Los Muertos. – CU Denver News, University of Colorado Denver, 8 Nov. 2021, https://news.ucdenver.edu/its-not-either-or-its-both-halloween-and-dia-de-los-muertos/.