Thrane: Day Of The Dead Isn’t Just Mexican Halloween

Photo by Getty Images

With Halloween around the corner, I can’t help but think about the other celebration I grew up with: Day of the Dead.

For some Latin American cultures, including my own, the celebration has a very different meaning. “El Día de Los Muertos” or Day of the Dead is an ancient tradition that dates to the Aztec civilization in what is now the central part of Mexico.

One key figure in this celebration is the skull, which the Aztecs used to honor their dead. Today’s Calaveras, or sugar skulls, represent the departed souls.

After the Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire in the 16th century, the Catholic church replaced these celebrations and rituals honoring the dead throughout the years. The church began commemorating All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2 to honor the children who had died.

Day of the Dead is also celebrated the first two days of November. Small altars are built with pictures of friends and relatives who have passed away. “Ofrendas,” or gifts, are placed around the pictures. These gifts may include fruit, bread, food, flowers, or whatever favorite treats the departed enjoyed in life.

Others choose to go to the cemetery and place the same ofrendas at their relatives’ graves.  Sometimes this also includes hiring a mariachi band to sing at the gravesite.

Although Mexico has been influenced by US Halloween celebrations over time, the majority choose to continue with their more religious and spiritual traditions.

El Día de Los Muertos is meant to help us reflect on the loved ones that were lost, but also about our own mortality, the hope for a más allá (the afterlife), and heaven for Christians and Catholics.

The relationship Mexicans have with death is different than it is for other cultures who instead fear it or laugh about it due to their fears.

In time, the Day of the Dead has been so popularized around the world that even Disney/Pixar produced an animated movie called “Coco,” inspired by the Mexican holiday.

This vibrant tale of family, fun, and adventure tells the story of an aspiring young musician named Miguel who embarks on an extraordinary journey to the magical land of his ancestors. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It is a family film that everyone will enjoy and learn from.

Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in the US and with the growth comes the expansion of closely held traditions such as Day of the Dead.

Now the symbols of that tradition such as the skulls, face painting, decorative figures, and more are being made and used without truly acknowledging or embracing the people they represent.

The images are adapted by the more dominant culture without honoring its meaning. Those who profit from this important element of the Mexican culture do so without permission and without truly contributing to the community.

Instead of promoting products, together we should embrace the meaning of this special day by remembering the lives of those we loved and lost, embracing newcomers to Iowa, and, most importantly, celebrating life.


By Claudia Thrane

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