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Terra Firma: Trinity University Press blog

Day of the Dead: A Holiday Full of Life

by Eliza Perez on

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is fast approaching, beginning November 1 for children through November 2 for adults who have passed away. It is a celebration to honor the dead and is observed by those in Latin America, particularly Mexico and Central America, as well as Latinos in the U.S.  It is a blending of both Indigenous and European Catholic traditions.  Most importantly, it shouldn’t be mistaken for Halloween.

Rather than a somber occasion, these days are filled with lovely festivities to commemorate our loved ones who have passed away. From museums in the Rio Grande Valley that are hosting poetry readings and altar viewings to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio hosting an entire celebration with music, face painting, altar viewings, and cemetery tours, Dia de los Muertos is always full of life. 

Traditionally people visit their loved ones graves and create homemade altars for them. In the U.S. this tradition has transformed and now altars can be found in museum or festival exhibits too.  In fact, the acclaimed Latina author Sandra Cisneros has created an altar installation at the Smithsonian this year to honor her mother.

Alters are all unique and personal, usually including the deceased person’s favorite foods, water, candles, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), calaveritas de azucar (sugar skulls), flowers, and even literary offerings.  My mother usually creates a small altar for her father, setting it up with his photograph, candles, water, and some food.

Dia de los Muertos festivities also have a literary tradition in the form of calaveras literarias, short poems written as epitaphs for the living. These are often politically motivated, but can be about any living person you want to criticize or write about in a humorous, yet morbid, manner. Here are a few I’ve translated:

 

Ahí viene la calaca vestida de morado para todos los enamorados.

Here comes the skeleton Death, dressed in purple for all the lovers.  

 

Como con la boca,

camino con los pies

pasa la huesuda y

me caigo sin querer.

I eat with my mouth,

I walk with my feet

the Bony Lady passes me

and I fall unintentionally.

 

This November 1, I’ll be volunteering with the Esperanza Center for their Dia de los Muertos event. So if you’re in San Antonio, you should stop by to get a better understanding of what Dia de los Muertos means to Latinos in the United States. It’s definitely something many of us want to share with our communities and dispel any confusion about it being a Latin American version of Halloween, as well as continue passing down our traditions for further generations. 

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