Dia de los Muertos: An Ancient Tradition

Today, people in the US celebrate a rather fun holiday: Halloween. While I loved going out trick-or-treating as a child and still enjoy going down to Sixth Street to see people that dressed up for the ocassion, I’m Hispanic and our customs are different. In the Hispanic culture we celebrate “Dia de los muertos” or Day of the Dead. This is a holiday when those who have passed away are commemorated by their families and loved ones. However, there is more to this holiday. Dia de los muertos having roots to ancient Mesoamerica and other sources that have shaped the tradition.

Dia de los muertos has roots from different sources, one of them being ancient Mesoamerica. In ancient times ancestry was essential to Mesoamerican culture. Ancestry in ancient times did not always concern with lienage and beloging to the elite. Civilizations like the Zapotecs venerated their ancestors because they served as intermediaries between the dead and living. Even though their ancestors were dead they could give advice and guide their family. In return the family of the deceased often made offerings to the dead. This is similar to the ofrendas dedicated to the dead. In the present day, families set up ofrendas with pictures of the deceased, “cempasuchil” flowers,  “pan de muerto,” sugar or chocolate skulls, fruits, and the deceased’s favorite foods. This ofrendas are set up once a year to commemorate the dead on November 1st and 2nd. It is said in the Mexican culture that during these days the dead make themselves present. The deceased show up to the ofrenda to eat the offerings their families have presented them with. In both, ancient and present times commemorating the dead is necessary to show appreciation. As seen, the the relationship between the living and the dead was important in ancient times and continues to be.

However, Dia de los muertos does not only concern with ofrendas. The Day of the Dead is often seen as a time for frightment. Everyone loves watching a movie that won’t let you sleep at night or hear horror stories that give you goose bumps. During this time is common for people to watch scary movies that play in certain TV channels or tell “leyendas” such as la “Llorona” or events that happened to them or in the town where they live. When I lived in Mexico as a kid, I remember gathering around with the whole family or just the kids. At first everything started as a conversation or joking around and suddenly someone started telling a story. My favorite stories to hear where events that happened within the family. One of these stories is about my grandma, my dad’s mom. My dad’s family owns a movie theater that used to be popular back in the day when it was still running. During this time my grandma was still young. She recalls walking out of their house with a bucket and crossing to the other side of the property to get water. When she got to the other side she remembers seeing small creatures dancing around a fire. At first she was in awe as she did not know what these creatures were. She observed and realize she was in th presence of “duendes” or elves. Once these creatures realized she was there they stoped dancing and looked at her. My grandma’s first reaction was to run back to the house. Even though I was not there when this happened I could imagine the horror and anxiety she felt.  I have always been intrigued by these family stories and what made them better was the ambiance of the season.

Without a doubt holidays are important among cultures. Hispanics celebrate the Day of the Dead and Americans celebrate Halloween. Even though these holidays share some similarities like trick-or-treating, these holidays are very different. As Hispanics continue migrating to the US, we start adapting the American culture and forgeting ours. It is noticeable how Hispanics are most likely to celebrate Halloween than to continue celebrating the dead. It’s great that we are able to acculturate but it’s sad that we forget our own culture in the process. Unfortunately, this is something we Hispanics have to deal with for the reason that we don’t belong here but want to fit in.

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