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A celebration of life: Dia de los Muertos

| Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A celebration of those who have passed, Dia de los Muertos is a Latino holiday predominantly recognized in Mexico, with roots stemming to the times of pre-Hispanic colonization of the Americas. It is well-known that Mexico has always had respect for the dead and the afterlife. Skulls, skeletons and blood were oftentimes used for worship and are still symbolically important in modern Mexico. Once the Spaniards and other Europeans came, customs melded together — foods, dances and spiritual and religious practices mixed into amalgamated interpretations of the cultures.

While nowadays it is one of the most notable holidays, Dia de los Muertos wasn’t always embraced by everyone. Latin America has been Catholic since the conquistadors, and leaders of the church have had qualms about the mixing of Catholic religiosity with other forms of spiritual practices. For a while, most of Mexico didn’t celebrate it, and the communities that did were concentrated in the central and southern regions. It wasn’t until recently that the Mexican government declared it a national holiday before it spread to the regions that previously condemned it for engaging in practices that they mistakenly believed “worshipped the dead.”

Nowadays, it is celebrated all throughout Mexico and many areas of Latin America, and it usually lasts multiple days and commemorates the lives of those who have passed away. Those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos set up altars dedicated to the deceased, filled with pictures in remembrance along with edible treats like pan de muerto (bread of the dead), traditional alcoholic beverages and sugar skulls. The practice began because some believed that the nutritional essence of the food was eaten by the dead during the night — but the living enjoy the foods just as much. The altars are colorfully decorated with sheets of paper with carved designs. This papel picado is a traditional Mexican decoration often seen outside of homes during seasons of festivities.

One of the the most notable things present at these altars are skulls and skeletons. Part of the symbols stem from classical Mexican culture; however, their modern depictions, dressed elegantly in flowers and dresses, came from a painting from the early 20th century called “La Calavera Catrina” (The Elegant Skull) that was based on a pre-Hispanic deity of the dead and afterlife. She has since become a token of Mexican culture. Now found everywhere throughout Mexico, La Catrina is a symbol popularized after famous artists, such as Diego Rivera, incorporated her into their works. Statues of the well-dressed skeleton decorate these altars, serving as part of the offerings, or ofrendas, for the dead.

The festivities gather friends, families and communities together as well. Some people set up picnics at cemeteries to join those who have passed. Parades are staples of Latino culture, where throngs of people dance to traditionally festive music. The day of the dead celebrations include people painting their faces in decorative skull makeup, with individuals wearing beautifully unique designs that, no, should not be part of your Halloween costume celebrating a culturally different and non-religious holiday (but is definitely encouraged if you join us in celebrating Dia de Los Muertos).

Praying and the incorporation of religious practices are what allowed Dia de Los Muertos to truly spread after being approved by the church leaders. The holiday now serves a huge role in Mexican spirituality by being an annual celebration of those we have lost, remembering their impact long after they have passed. This year, Mexico City has had a focus on the victims from the recent earthquakes, honoring them after the horrific tragedies that took hundreds of lives. Praying for the souls and reciting rosaries is customary, and the religious purpose the holiday has now has allowed it to grow into one of the most important holidays for Latinos in the U.S as they remember their cultural roots and respect and celebrate the lives of those who have passed.

Natalie Howe is a coffee aficionado, but it may be an understatement considering it is her main food group. Majoring in finance and environmental science, she enjoys talking about weather patterns and Latin American multiculturalism. Any inquiries and weather complaints can be sent to nhowe@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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