The Day of the Dead
by Dr. Cristina Cleveland (Special thanks to Rocio Ramirez for her great input! – CC)
In Mexico and in other Latin American countries on November 2nd, we celebrate the “Day of the Dead.” It is, in fact, a two-day celebration since the day before, on November 1, we celebrate the “Day of Innocent Saints” referring to children and infants who have passed away.
The origins of Dia de los Muertos come from pre-Hispanic civilizations, from 3,000 years ago, long before the Spaniards arrived to Mexico. Trust me… they tried hard to eradicate it, but instead, it emerged as a new way to honor our ancestors. Now even for the Catholic calendar, November 1st is All Saints’ Day, and November 2nd All Soul’s Day.
The tradition is to prepare an altar (at home, schools, parks and government offices) with the four elements of nature — water (beverages), wind (music), fire (candles), and earth (flowers) — to honor and show respect and love to the important people in our lives that are already dead. We also cook the food that the deceased person used to love and make a very special bread called “Pan de Muerto.” You may also see plain water in vases with soft towels since we invite our ghostly “guests” to clean themselves and get ready before the party begins. Sometimes there are toys for the children.
The main flower that is used to decorate the altars in zempazuchitl, (marigold) a deep orange flower only available during October and November. People sometimes create floral arches or different and very sophisticated designs of flower bouquets. They also include some pictures and items that belonged to the deceased person as part of the decorations.
It is believed that all souls are eternal and they can travel from this world to the next one back and forth, so a few days before November 1 families engage in the preparation of food and presents for the family members and friends from the other world who will visit them during those days.
This celebration is far from being a sad occasion! It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful and fun holidays we have. There are parades where people dress nice and in fancy costumes and they paint their faces as skulls. There is music and dancing from downtown all the way until you arrive to the graveyard, which has already been cleaned, decorated and prepared for the celebration. Once there, you can perfectly see a lot of candles everywhere, mariachi music and trios, and people are laughing and sharing stories about the people they are honoring and sharing the food that they prepared.
Of course, sometimes you can see a lonely person with few ornaments crying over a tomb, is not easy to remember someone that you cannot embrace anymore without some tears…
El Dia de los Muertos it is a celebration of life. It is also a reminder that we all will be there someday, but we’re not afraid, because we will come back every year to eat our favorite food and be around our beloved ones.
People also write “calaveras” (literate skulls), short rhyming poems making fun or telling anecdotes about people that are still alive (for some reason politicians are very prone to get one of these). Kids go out and ask for “calaverita” kind of trick or treat, but they’re asking for a sugar skull with their names printed on them.
One of the most iconic symbols for this date is also “La Catrina”, which is a very fancy dress up lady created by Mexican Artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the late 1800’s to mock the lifestyle of rich Mexicans trying to tell them, that even money can’t keep us from death.
On November 7th, 2003, the 18 member countries of UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) voted unanimously to make Mexico’s November Day of The Dead traditions a part of the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This means that UNESCO has identified these traditions as an essential component of cultural diversity and creative expression. They are a worldwide cultural treasure. The practices should be safeguarded, and we should enjoy the responsibility of making sure more people are aware of them.
Celebrate Dia De Los Muertos at the Art Forum of Waco:
October 31 – Dia de los Muertos Reception at the Art Forum – Join the Art Forum of Waco, as they celebrate Dia de los Muertos through art and traditional stories, events and activities. Over 20 artists, including students from McGregor ISD, will be participating in this event. Cost: Free, with donation accepted. Time: 6 PM-9 PM. Location: Art Forum of Waco [1826 Morrow Ave.]. For more information contact Arthur Huron at 254.733.1525.
November 1 thru 7 – Dia de los Muertos celebration at the Art Forum – Join Art Forum of Waco, as they celebrate Dia de los Muertos through art and traditional stories, events and activities. Over 20 artists, including students from McGregor ISD, will be participating in this event. Cost: Free, with donation accepted. Time: 11 AM-6 PM daily. Location: Art Forum of Waco [1826 Morrow Ave.]. For more information contact Arthur Huron at 254.733.1525.
This Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Dr. Cristina Cleveland. Cristina was born and raised in Mexico City. She’s a Pediatric Neurologist and when she moved to Waco back in 2008, she was planning to be a stay-home-mother of their now 7-years-old-twins. Things changed (as usual) and now, after getting a Master’s Degree in Education, she works for the Foreign Language Department in Waco ISD. In her spare time you can see her driving her twins to the library, karate, soccer, swimming and art classes. If she could just get a “time out,” she would probably be walking, swimming, reading or watching a foreign movie.
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