El Dia De Los Muertos Is More Than Sugar Skulls And Face Painting

Posted: Nov 2 2015, 11:38pm CST | by , Updated: Nov 3 2015, 3:00pm CST, in News | Also on the Geek Mind


El Dia de los Muertos is more than sugar skulls and face painting
Credit: Getty Images
  • Food shows inclusive love.
  • Don't fear death and skulls.
  • Don't confuse it with Halloween.

El Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a Latinx holiday that combines Catholic with per-Columbian traditions.

Halloween is globally celebrated thanks to social media platform like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. But after the candy goes on sale and costumes are put up for next year’s adventures, there’s still a holiday left to celebrate.

El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is a Mexican and Latin American celebration of deceased loved ones. Altars are set up with offerings ranging from favorite treats to flowers and candles. Often the little places of worship have pictures located around, to asset the dead are welcome. Not to mention, sugar skull products and face painting booths draw large crowds.

But what does the holiday really mean? And is there a single way to celebrate?

Discovering Death’s Door

For the science fiction fan, think of it as a really festive and non-treacherous version of “Army of Ghosts” from Doctor Who. When Jackie mentions how much it means to see dead relatives, there’s a kinship to the traditional holiday. Or, think of it as a reverse George Romero film. Instead of the dead rising for tasty human-flesh snack, the non-living members are welcomed by families.

Ringling College of Art and Design students Ashley Graham, Kate Reynolds, and Lindsey St. Pierre created a dialogue free 3-D film on the holiday. Dia de los Muertos offers non-verbal clues into the traditions and peace found in celebrating. When a little girl visits her mother’s grave, a whole new world emerges and transforms tears into laughter—one of the main goals of fiestas. As the music notes each realization for the child, the audience also understands the joy.

Death is a part of life.

However, grieving in the middle of a large group offers an instant connection and a chance to not focus on the empathetic, well-meaning but misguided condolences. A person may want to reminisce without harsh pain. Instead that person may want to follow the Aztec belief that one shouldn’t be sad about another person’s death. Instead a party should be held, a festival to welcome them home for one day a year when the portal between worlds is thinnest.

So where does the Christianity fit in?

All Soul’s Day is when Catholics pray and ask for God’s mercy for those not yet in heaven’s gates. Corollary, All Saint’s Day (November 1) asks for the faithful to honor and live as saints, a reminder of how to live every day. In a mix of different religious values, the faithful still look to honor and offer prayers of protection of the long journey ahead.

Festivals of Faith

According to San Francisco’s Annual Festival of Altars, over 15,000 people are expected in the Mission District to celebrate on November 2, 2015. Using art installations as ofrindas—or altars—attendees are encouraged to bring items to memorialize the deceased. Upholding a cross between Mezo-American and Christian beliefs, Latinxs revel in the decadent festivity.

Run by The Marigold Project, all ethnicities and races are invited but the main congregation seem to be Latinxs. A volunteer project, there are different sponsors who help run the festival each year. The main goal is to foster and create “a public space for community members to honor the loss of loved ones in their lives and to connect with one another through art and expression over the timeless subject of death and dying.”

A photo posted by Franco Folini (@ffolini) on

Oh, and why are marigolds so important? They form a trail for the deceased to find their way to the altars. As reported by The Los Angeles Times, the Aztecs revered the flowers that bloomed across the southwest and all the way to Peru. Exported by Spanish conquistadors, marigolds are now found in garlands for temple gods in India.

Reverence is everything and TMP led a golden trail along San Francisco's Mission District on November 1.

Feeding the Faithful

Mythology around the world often features the returning dead enjoying food and drink. Valhalla maidens hand out food and drink fit for kings to deserving souls. Ancient Grecian ambrosia returns the dead to life with a single bite of food. Hindu and Indian mythology discuss the immortality-granting Amrita, or the Water of Life. Like the Ancient Greeks, Indian folklore alludes to the inherent need to continue life; to be alive is to be a part of the world and to escape any upsets.

Even Casper (1995) and Ghostbusters (1984) show ghosts devouring food at lightning speeds. Eating is a major part of life, of celebrating everything from job promotions to weddings. Food offers a connection. Dia de los Muertos showed how a knife can scare yet entrance an audience.

Levity is important. Who doesn't remember the creepy way the Grim Reaper haunted Al Bundy? Or the way the Reaper played chess with Bill and Ted? Plus, he was totally a Time Lord. In other words: don't give into fear.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, celebrations last from October 28 until November 3 this year. A culinary tour of Oaxaca City provides a look at individual celebration. It’s more than just really good food, which is often left for the dead. On October 30 and 31, remembrance altars are erected and marigolds are placed in various forms (candle, oil, flowers).

Glasses of water are placed beside the altars since families believe the dead are tired and thirsty from a long journey. And what does a person do when hungry and thirsty? Satiate the feeling before accepting the next part of the mission. Homemade food is yet another sign of love and bonding, too. The deceased member is still part of the family.

Comfort in Tradition

Frances and Hilda Sanchez told the San Diego Union-Tribune that local festivities in Old Town, San Diego felt right. There’s “a more traditional location,” says Frances. And Hilda brought her three-year-old son, so “he becomes familiar with the culture.” Being a part of a cultural holiday is important. It’s why certain faiths have days that require no work and only reflection.

San Diego expects at least 75,000 people to visit. Although two different styles of celebration are found between southern and northern California, commemorating a cultural moment is equally important to both regions.

People also eat sugar skulls with loved ones names carved on the forehead. Many Day of the Dead tattoos feature the style of bright, colorful and intricate designs over a human skull or face.

Sugar skull face paintings are found throughout festivals and during Halloween, but do the colors mean anything? According to The Arizona Republic, colors are one of the most important design elements. Red represents the blood and sacrifice, one of the most obvious elements. Just like orange stands for the sun, while yellow is the color of marigolds and death.

A photo posted by Chad Santos (@elchadsantos) on

What’s more interesting is the fact that shades of purple convey grief and pain in some cultures yet may also represent wealth and royalty; blue is not a factor. Imagine a monarch in deep purple, waving to a crowd while covered in red. If you follow the Latinx culture’s meanings, the wealth of blood and grief fits just as well as regal attitude and position.

Throughout the United States, volunteers and organizers put together events to show love and appreciation to the dead—from the southern states to the expansive western states. Arizona Republic also attended a local celebration in Phoenix, where participants dressed in wooden masks dance to the music and communal camaraderie.

Southwest Detroit participated in a procession led by City Councilwoman Raquel Castenada-Lopez, an effort to bridge the pain of 19-year-old Andres DeJesus’s death during a Cinco de Mayo celebration. 2015 is only the second year for the parade, but neighborhood worked together to create altars and festivals in prior years. Traditions may change as communities morph, but the value in being connected can’t be forgotten.

Evolving Immersion

But not all areas offer the same traditions. Rural and urban location plays a strong role in designating how to celebrate. Children may also determine whether to celebrate Halloween or the distinctly Latin observation. Or, of course, both.

Speaking to The New York Times last year, Dr. Claudio Lomnitz pointed out how the traditions of conquest and subjugation have merged together. “Mexico developed, over the centuries, a way of not marginalizing death, of not making death a taboo subject,” which doesn’t make celebrating Halloween is less valid, a harkening call found in El Dia de los Muertos stalls in Mexico City.

Montserrat Hernández told the paper that traditions are strong, even when surrounding artists like Daniela Torres disagree. “Now people are asking more for Day of the Dead. We are going back to it.” As a paper entrepreneur, the continuing appreciation of the Hilda Sanchezs of the world hold value.

This year’s Dia de los Muertos carnivals winds down on Monday, November 2. So don’t forget to check online or locally and see if any open events are available on a holy day of honor.

Cadaverous Caveat

However, before anyone dresses up with a sugar skull design or blithely creates a Book of the Dead costume with little regard to accuracy, keep this in mind: El Dia de los Muertos is a religious and spiritual holiday.

All the information presented in the article isn’t an excuse to appropriate without appreciating the value. Halloween and the Day of the Dead are vastly differently celebrations. Some festival goers may not have a problem with another ethnicity copying the look—but that doesn’t invalidate the people who do.

Just like any holiday, remember the origins and listen to the stories. Don’t just paint to look cool in photographs. The Mexicans and Latinx communities deserve better. May the altars, prayers, and festivities bring peace to all visiting souls--no matter the plane of existence.

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