Understand the history and traditions of Día de los Muertos
Anyone who’s spent a few falls in Tucson will know the signs of the change of seasons, especially cooler temperatures and the increase in the number of drivers on the road with the return of the snowbirds. But the appearance of other more unique symbols also marks the occasion. Calaveras, or skulls – often in the form of edible and decorative sugar skulls – and papel picado, colorful pieces of paper with intricately cut patterns are ubiquitous in southern Arizona this October, but what do they mean? They are icons of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead – a holiday with roots in Mexico that is now celebrated around the world.
Observed for two days – November 1-2 – Día de los Muertos is a time for people to mourn the loss of family and friends, and to make sure they are never forgotten, said Michelle Tellez, associate professor at Department of Mexican-American Studies at the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Téllez’s research focuses on transnational community formations, chicana mothering, gender migration and more.
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Téllez, who is also the department’s director of graduate studies, discussed the history, traditions and imagery of Día de los Muertos, how the holidays have changed over the millennia, and how interested persons can participate.
Q: What is Día de los Muertos, and how and when were its traditions and rituals born?
A: Día de los Muertos, the way we celebrate it here in the United States, emerged in Mexico, and it has seen many evolutions over 3,000 years from what we understand today. The holidays of November 1 and 2 are a time to honor your ancestors and those in your family and community who entered the spirit world. It emerged from an Aztec ritual known as Miccaihuitl, and Miccaihuitl It was the honor of the dead, but it was also harvest time. It was that moment to recognize a seasonal change from light to dark as we move into fall.
Then you have the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas, bringing with them Christianity and Catholicism. They had their own celebrations which they tried to synchronize with traditional Aboriginal ceremonies. Thus, Día de los Muertos is today the gathering of All Saints and All Saints with this traditional honor of our ancestors.
Q: What traditions do Día de los Muertos observers practice?
A: Día de los Muertos is an opportunity for families to create altars for their loved ones. Many argue that if you remember them, they never cease to exist. Altars can be made in many ways, but some of the basic items would be a photo of the deceased, their favorite foods, flowers. You can also include a representation of the four elements, such as a candle or copal – incense – for fire, a cup of water, then wind and earth could be represented by papel picado. Some people, depending on where you are in the world, go to the cemetery to build their altars. But, because of migration, sometimes we are not in the places where our loved ones are buried, so you make the altars in your house.
But a lot of people do it differently: some people have full parties, and some people have a party. velación, or observance, which means that you are simply honoring your loved ones not necessarily with prayer, but in solemn space.
During these two days, you spend time with these memories. And you don’t leave the altar standing for days, because it’s sacred. You take the time to close the ceremony or this moment of engagement with your memories and these ancestors who are no longer with us.
Q: Día de los Muertos is often confused with Halloween, although there is no connection with this holiday. Why do you think this is happening and why can it be problematic to combine the two?
A: I think it’s just because of the time of year – they’re both in the fall. I started to see people dressing up and they were like, “I’m Día de los Muertos for Halloween”, and it was so clear to me that they had no idea what they were talking about. It would be different to dress up as catrine or one catrina, which is the embodiment of a calaça, or a skeleton. But because they start to confuse the two, you not only see people dressing up as “Día de los Muertos” for Halloween, but you also see Halloween parties with altars. They should be different things.
Q: The calaveras, or skulls, and calacas, or skeletons, have become icons of Día de los Muertos. How did it come about and what do the symbols mean?
A: I couldn’t tell you exactly when people started using them, but I guess it has to do with the early 20th century political artist José Posada who started making these calacas that we know now, drawing from its kind of play about life and death, war, poverty and culture. Taking inspiration from this tradition, people started to use face painting as an example of life and death, so you will see it.
At the most basic level, the skulls represent a lost spirit. Although we draw from an ancient tradition, it is not as if the sugar skulls were there when these traditions, practices and rituals began. But culture and traditions are changing. This imagery is one of the most obvious ways to convey this notion of life and death, our mortality as humans, and our constant dance with life and death.
Q: How can people learn more about the traditions or even participate?
A: There are some very good books. I would recommend Juanita Garciagodoy’s “Digging the Days of the Dead: A Reading of Mexico’s Dias de Muertos” for adults. And for children, “The Remembering Day / El día de los muertos”, by Pat Mora.
It’s okay to want to honor your loved ones, and if you do it with that intention, I think it’s a beautiful thing. I would find ways to participate in a community celebration where they truly honor that tradition. In Tucson we have the All Souls Procession, but from what I understand the organizers see it as something very different; it’s related, but it’s not a Día de los Muertos event. But it’s a way for people to really connect with others. Grieving can be a very isolating thing, and some people want to be in community to connect with others who are going through a similar experience.
Or, you can make your own altar and it can be really simple – a candle and a photo. I think it’s a great way to keep these people we love present and to teach our families about them. I have a daughter and she may not have known my father, but because I bring her to my house every year, she feels connected to him.
Q: As someone with a personal connection to these traditions, who will you think of during Día de los Muertos?
A: It is personally one of my favorite times of the year. My family is from a small town called Tomatlán, Jalisco, and the tradition is to go to the cemetery to honor our loved ones. We have an area of the cemetery where at least three generations of our family are buried. However, when my mother migrated, she did not bring this tradition here because we were so far away. So I didn’t necessarily grow up with it.
My father passed away suddenly when I was 20, and it was such an overwhelming experience that I needed to find a way to stay connected to him. It was around this time that I also started to learn more about this tradition and how to create the altar and what it means. For me, it was a tradition that I started to do and then spread to my immediate family. And now that’s something my daughter can say she was raised with because I’ve made altars with her all her life.
This year, I will be thinking about all the families who have lost loved ones to COVID, and I will be thinking about my own personal losses this year. I still honor my parents on my altar; they are the center of the altar. My mom loved Almond Roca, so we always include him. And my daughter sometimes teases me saying, “When I have to put you on an altar, Mami, I’m going to put Double Stuf Oreos!”
It’s a way for us to sort of normalize this life cycle that we go through. It’s not easy – it’s one of the worst things to lose someone you love. But I know that long after my absence, I will have a place in this ceremony with my daughter for the rest of her life.