Tag Archives: day of the dead

Vietnamese “Day of the Dead”


My informant is a 20 year old student at the University of Southern California (USC). This conversation took place one night at Cafe 84, a place where many students at USC go to study at night. The informant and I sat alone at our own table, but were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, he talks about a Vietnamese tradition, similar to the Day of the Dead, that his family practices every year in order to honor and respect his family’s ancestors. My informant says he never officially learned this folklore, but rather that his mom “just started doing it… One day I woke up and there’s just this altar in the middle of my house.” This is a transcription of his folklore, where he is identified as N and I am identified as K.



N: Hello, so um, this is really similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead—I don’t really know what it’s called to be honest—but it’s kind of like an ancestral worship thing, so like…


K: But specific only to Vietnamese?


N: Yeah for Vietnamese people! So we have a bunch of pictures of our ancestors, and then we have a bunch of food that we put on the table… Honestly we didn’t do much more than that. I’m pretty there’s a whole other tradition that went along with it…


K: Okay but why did you do it?


N: Just to like worship your ancestors and stuff. Like, “pay respect to your ancestors” kind of thing, and we’d just have pictures of a bunch on them on our table and we’d like offer them, like, Vietnamese food offerings.


K: Were they supposed to, like, come back and visit you or something?


N: No… well, maybe, I don’t know! Yeah… so that’s it.



In this account, it was clear that my informant didn’t know a lot about the tradition and was even slightly unenthusiastic about it. This may be attributed to the fact that he’s uncomfortable because he feels that he should know more about the tradition because his family has been doing it every year ever since he can remember. During our conversation, it seemed like he felt a little ashamed or guilty that he wasn’t as informed, especially when he knows it’s so important to his family.

In a separate conversation, my informant told me that his parents were immigrants to this country, but that he was born in Los Angeles, California. Sometimes, people can be embarrassed or shy when they tell cultural stories, especially if they don’t have strong connections to their culture, which seems to be the case with my informant. Even though he gets the gist of it, my informant seems disconnected from this practice because he was never the one to set up the altar, pull out the photos of his ancestors, or cook the food that his family offered. In this case, my informant seems to only be a passive bearer of this tradition: he can recognize the folklore when it’s performed or being created, but he doesn’t seem capable of replicating it. His parents, on the other hand, have clearly been the active bearers of this tradition in his family. This could be due to the fact that they are immigrants, and thus are much more strongly connected to its purpose.

This tradition speaks to immigrant status and identity; my informant is in a liminal state of being a part of a Vietnamese identity because he was born to Vietnamese parents, but also being American because of the fact that he was born and raised in America. Because of this, he loses a lot of the authenticity of his Vietnamese identity. Even from the very start, we can see that he introduces this tradition not by it’s Vietnamese name, but as a tradition that is “similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead.” Perhaps this is because in America, Day of the Dead is much more well-known and integrated into American culture than most other ethnic holidays. For example, when I took Spanish in high school, we would celebrate Day of the Dead every year as a way to immerse ourselves into the culture. As a child, it’s possible that he came to understand his own family’s folklore in the context of America. Thus, rather than thinking that Day of the Dead is similar to this Vietnamese tradition that his family practices, his mind was instead wired to notice that this tradition is similar to the popular holiday of Day of the Dead.

On the other hand, understanding that Day of the Dead is a much more understood and well-known celebration, my informant perhaps uses Day of the Dead to explain his tradition in terms of other peoples folklore to help it be better understood. His way of introducing it as a Vietnamese version of the Day of the Dead could be his way of saying “Day of the Dead is not a mainstream holiday, and neither is mine.”


Dia de los Muertos

Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in Mexico and currently lives in Brazil. She came to visit me.

Informant: So there is the day of the dead in Mexico. In Spanish, it’s called the dia de los muertos. Basically, it’s a day where you worship… well not exactly worship… it’s a day dedicated to remembering all of the people who passed away and celebrate their life.

Collector: I’ve heard it’s like Halloween. Is this true?

Informant: No, its not like Halloween. On this day, normally you go to the person’s tomb with their favorite food and you place it there like you’re offering them your favorite food. And you also eat it, not theirs but you have a plate of their own.

Collector: Do you eat the food with them?

Informant: Yes you eat it with them on their tomb, and then you decorate their tomb with a bunch of flowers, and everyone dresses up like skull candy, like skeletons but in a fancy way, and then you also save them their favorite alcohol, and you have to drink like your drinking with them, and you play their favorite music, and its like you’re having a party with the tomb.

Collector: Do you pour the alcohol on their grave or do you just leave it there?

Informant: You just leave the cup there with their favorite food. There not actually supposed to be eating it, it’s a more symbolic thing, just to honor them.

Collector: Have you done this before?

Informant: I’ve done it before both in Mexico and in Brazil. But since all of my family is buried in Mexico, I don’t go to the graveyard in Brazil. Instead, I do kind of an alter, like you build an alter for them in the house if you don’t go visit their tombstone, and you can put their favorite food there, and there’s a special bread that you do for that celebration that’s basically a sweet bread. It’s called Pan de Muerto. Bread of the dead.

Everyone kinda gets together during this holiday and it doesn’t really matter who are are, cuz youre celebrating the dead. Who you are and where you come from doesn’t really matter.

Collector: Who have you celebrated?

Informant: I celebrated my grandfathers and Frida Kahlo. It’s not just for family members, you can celebrate whoever you want if their dead.

Collector: Why do you like it?

Informant: I like it because it’s a big party and you don’t mourn them you kind of celebrate them. You look at death with more of a positive attitude. My mother would do it at home when I was young, she would decorate the house and she would celebrate my grandparents. I think its good to remember the people who pass away because sometimes we forget them.

I found it fascinating how in Mexican culture, they have an entire day to celebrate the dead. Generally, when people think of dead people, the thought tends to be accompanied with feelings of mourning. The Mexican culture turns the tables on this feeling, and takes one day out of the year to celebrate the dead and interact with them as if they were living. I also found it interesting that you don’t necessarily celebrate only family members. I would think that when mourning or celebrating the dead, it would be people that you knew rather than strangers, but I think it’s interesting how they really embrace the whole celebration of the dead thing.

Day of the Dead in Mexico

Day of the Dead


The informant is a 19-year old student attending USC. She was born in Avellino, and has lived in central Mexico, London, and Italy in her life. She speaks Italian, Spanish, and English and is majoring in architecture. The following is what she shared with me about Day of the Dead from when she lived in Mexico for 6 years.


Informant: “In Mexico there was the Day of the Dead.”

Interviewer: “How do they celebrate it?”

Informant: “They made like alters with food, and they have it out for the dead. There are a certain amount of days it goes on.

Interviewer: “Did you have any friends who celebrated it?”

Informant: “Yes, but we did it at school too. We did the sugar skulls.”

Interviewer: “What’s a sugar skull?”

Informant: “It’s a skull made out of sugar. [Laughs]. You just bought them at the supermarket. You could decorate them yourself.

Interviewer: “What is Day of the Dead about?”

Informant: “To celebrate the Dead! The people that have passed on come back to life at night.”

Interviewer: “is it scary? Like are the dead perceived as bad?”

Informant: “No, it’s good. They are good spirits.”



Day of the Dead is a pretty well known and considerably popularized holiday. It was interesting to hear how indifferently the informant was about Day of the Dead and the customs around it. Perhaps having lived in a culture where the dead aren’t perceived as “bad” or as haunting makes the whole notion of dead coming back to life something casual.

Talking to the informant about how Day of the Dead was celebrated in Mexico reminds me a lot of talking to Israeli soldiers when I was in Israel this summer about bar and bat mitzvahs in Israel. One might think that Jewish rituals would be more extreme or that people would be more devout in a Jewish state, but in fact, it seemed the opposite. All of us American-Jews were surprised to find out that for the Israeli soldiers we talked to, bar and bat mitzvahs (Jewish coming of age ritual) were just parties for the bar or bat mitzvah and his or her friends as opposed to the religiously-heightened ritual they are typically performed in the United States.

Day of the Dead

“Una de las tradiciones que es muy popular en la universidad donde estudié mi licenciatura (la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) se celebra cada primero de noviembre, el día de los muertos. Una de las actividades que se efectúan en esta festividad es la de construir altares y ofrendas para honrar a los muertos. En esta universidad las ofrendas son especialmente gigantescas. Se acostumbra a que los estudiantes de diferentes facultades se reúnan para construir enormes calaveras con adornos artísticos usando flores de cempasúchil.”


“One of the traditions that is very popular in the university where I did my undergraduate work (the National Autonomous University of Mexico) happens every first of November, when the day of the dead is celebrated. One of the activities that includes this festivity is to build offerings or altars honoring the deceased. In this university the offerings are famous for being gigantic. It’s very common for students from every school to get together to create enormous skulls along with artistic decorations using marigolds.”


The informant is a PhD student at the University of California, studying Electrical Engineering. He is from Mexico City, Mexico, where he was born and lived most of his life. His native tongue is Spanish, but he is fluent in English, as well. He got his undergraduate degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which he graduated from in 2012. He enjoys ballroom dancing in his free time.


The informant was asked to send the collector a description of a holiday celebrated in Mexico that has a particular tradition associated with it. He typed it first in Spanish, then was kind enough to translate it. As he says, this tradition was practiced at his undergraduate university, though he had celebrated the holiday all his life.


The Day of the Dead is celebrated on the first day of November. The holiday’s main purpose is the gathering of friends and family to pray for loved ones who have died. The holiday originated in Mexico, and originally was celebrated at the beginning of the summer, but was moved after the colonization of the Spanish to correspond with All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. The celebration can often last three days, beginning on All Hallows’ day to make the alters; Day of Innocents, to pray for dead children’ and Day of the Dead, for lost adults.

The altars are the main focus of the holiday. On them, people will place memorabilia from the dead person, whether it is pictures or their favorite food or sometimes they will play their favorite music. toys can be brought for children. Often times, there will be marigolds, the traditional flower in Mexico to honor the dead. Altars can be located at the cemetery where the deceased is buried, or within people’s homes if they are far away from the cemetery.  Family members can spend all night at the altar, praying. Most public schools create their own altars, avoiding religious symbols that might exist on other altars.

The informant’s university also builds its own altars. It is famous for building especially large altars in comparison to other schools, and that is a source of pride for the university (showing how important this holiday is). The students get together to decorate skulls, a major symbol for the holiday. In some places, people wear skull masks or make chocolate or sugar skulls for the day. At the informant’s university, the skulls become works of art, decorated with marigolds to show respect for the dead.

Dia de los Muertos

When we made the offerings for Dia de los Muertos, we left out water. I asked other families, and they told me you customarily leave oranges, and bread, and you leave salt in the shape of a cross to symbolize something good for the returning dead. You also light a candle for each person that had died in your family, so they could find their way back to you during the festival of the dead… I have all of these aunts and random people, tons of them, on my mom’s side, and eight on my dad’s side, so it was a lot of candles. But I didn’t understand about the water, so I asked my dad for the explanation…

Water represents light, like a lighthouse, leading them (the dead), asking them, showing them the way like a beacon, making sure they go to the right house.

Also you’re not allowed to put out the candles, they HAVE to die out themselves. But as for the water, dad said that if you saw bubbles in it the next morning, you know that they visited… I believed it as a kid, but I’m pretty sure it always had bubbles, no matter what…


How did you come across this folklore: “I refer to these as “sketchy stories from my (step)father”/sketchy things he did when I was a kid…”

Other information: “My dad has a lot of stories like these, but my mom was big on not sharing them, or letting us hear them—so I heard this in my teens, when were allowed (finally) to ask and he would actually answer… my mom said it would invite bad people/things to us or something…”

This ritual is almost like a more spiritual version of what kids are taught to do for Santa, leaving out cookies the night of Christmas Eve and in the morning there would be bitemarks or crumbs as evidence that he had visited. But Dia de los Muertos is not quite as commercialized of a holiday, and unlike Christmas, offers another opportunity to connect with the dead.

Holiday – Mexico

“Dia de los Muertos”- Day of the Dead

My informant is a first-generation American, so obviously there will be Mexican holidays that have carried over into his generation from the generation of his parents.  My informant’s mother is Mexican, while his father is Panamanian and Danish.  Therefore, the family carries over the mother’s roots when it comes to Spanish festivals and traditions.  This is a holiday that occurs every year and is celebrated in remembrance of those lives that are deceased.  It is a holiday that celebrates and honors the lives of those who have passed away.  My informant has celebrated this holiday every year of his life.

This holiday is celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd.  The interesting thing about this holiday is that it is begins on the same day as the American date of Halloween.  Both holidays are extremely similar because both have skulls, costumes, and other items relating to the dead.  Although it is mainly a Mexican holiday, it is also celebrated in other parts of the Spanish speaking world, as well as Brazil, a Portuguese speaking country.

The reason why this festival is so important in my informant’s world today is because he has a lot of pride in his culture.  Being the first man from his family born in America, my informant feels it is important to carry over the roots of his family’s culture into his American culture.  When I asked my informant what he thought about the holiday, he stated that he loves “the holiday because it is a time where I get to go to San Diego and celebrate with my family.  Also, I think it is a great way to honor the dead.  It is a good tradition to keep family together, and to come in contact with people outside your family as well because the whole community comes together for it.”

From talking to my informant, I really feel as though he is extremely dedicated to his culture.  He believes that family and tradition are two important values in his life, and without them he would feel empty.  I admire my informant for being so religious and enriched in his culture.


This article can be found in the Greeley Tribune which can be accessed online at:


– This article was accessed on April 25, 2007

Celebration – Mexico

Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

The entire village or neighborhood goes to the tombstones of family friends and relatives. They bring flowers, the dead person’s favorite food (which is necessary), water, and fruit to leave at the grave. The also stand around and sing traditional mariachi songs.


The Day of the Dead celebration is a traditional Mexican custom occurring on November 1 (All Saints Day) and 2nd (All Soul’s Day). The subject said that it is a huge celebration for their ancestors and relatives who have recently died. I asked her who went with her to the graveyard and she said the entire village (when she goes back to Mexico) or the neighborhood (when she stays home in Los Angeles). She said you can see droves of people walking to the graveyard with tons of gifts for the dead. She said that flowers and the dead person’s favorite food is necessary. Fruit and water come next in line to leave at the grave.  She said that everyone stands around the graves and sings traditional mariachi songs. She said that it was a time of celebration not one of mourning.

I have heard of the Day of the Dead celebration, especially since I am from Arizona, there are huge festivals and art galleries dedicated to different art work (such as altars) in light of the Day of the Dead. When I looked up the Day of the Dead, one of the first websites was one from the Arizona paper, so I clicked on it and found links to all of the celebrations in my hometown where you can make arts and crafts, watch films, view different altars and make sugar skulls. It cites the history as, “More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The ritual is celebrated in Mexico and certain parts of the United States, including the Valley… Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls” (Miller 1).

Another website went a little more in depth with the history of the celebration saying that it went back to Aztec culture in which they observed a month of the dead dedicating the festivities to the goddess, Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead”, which is now known as Catrina (picture below). The website lists some of the customs, including building graves and offering food to the dead. It also mentions the orange marigold, which is now called the “Flor de Muerto” or flower of the dead and is meant to attract souls of the dead to the food. As you can see the subject celebrates it very traditionally with offering flowers and food.


Miller, Carlos. “Indigenous People wouldn’t let ‘Day of the Dead’ die.”  Azcentral.com. Apr 7                07. http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/history/


Dia De Los Muertos

“It takes place between the evening of October 31st and the morning of November 1st. What you do is set out the favorite items, favorite foods, and a picture of the deceased. You could also put out religious items, or items that have sentimental value to the person. A critical part of it is that the spirits of the deceased are supposed to come back during this time period. It’s normal for the family to come over the evening of November 1st to talk about the person. Stories, memories, and it’s also an opportunity for the children who didn’t know the person to get to learn about them. It’s about keeping yourself connected to your past. I enjoy it because it gives me an idea of where my mother came from.”

Subject’s Analysis:

Collector’s Analysis:

I think that Dia de los Muertos is a great idea for a holiday. I appreciate this holiday because it is about respecting your ancestors, essentially. In addition the holiday teaches people not to fear death, but rather to embrace it, and to respect those that came before you. The only part of the holiday that I find slightly disturbing is the fact that the spirit of the deceased are supposed to come back. That scares me.

This holiday could be analyzed by the time of year that it falls during and how that is related to the holiday. During that time period, Late October early November, things are beginning to die off, and there lies a  relation to death. If you look at the year in terms of the human life cycle, by the time that November comes around the year is in the later part of its life, thus another connection to death.

This example also comes up in “Of Corpse” which confirms the principals of the holiday that Melissa described. The book goes further in depth to describe the loose connection between the Catholic Church and the holiday. As well the book further details the rituals that take place. (202)

Congdon, Kristin, and Peter Narvaez. Of Corpse. Logan, UT: Utah State University
Press, 2003.

Festival – Mexico

“The Day of the Dead is the Mexican version of Halloween. It is more like a party, or a celebration of a person’s life.”

Is there anything unique about this day? “Some people go to the extent of having picnics over the graves of their loved ones who have deceased.”

Are there any special foods you eat on this day? “I’m not too sure about that, but have you ever been to Olvera street downtown? There are always these decorations and paper mache skulls down there that are common for this celebration.”

Guillermo told me that he and his immediate family do not usually celebrate this holiday every year, which falls on the 1st of November. However, he said that he knows of it from older members of his family who would celebrate it more frequently. He said that this celebration is held to remember those who have passed away and to honor what they did during their life. He explained that a family remembers their relatives who have passed away and brings pictures of them to the celebration or picnic. He told me about the use of skull symbolism in the decorations for this day and how those images represent how the dead are incorporated and involved in this celebration.

He explained to me how this celebration is significant for the family members who are still living as a way to accept the loss of their loved ones. This day allows family members to have a party in their honor so to enjoy and remember all the happy memories they had with that person. It sheds a more positive light on death, expressing it as a natural occurrence. It is not usually a sad or mournful celebration, but one that helps the family come to terms with their loss. He said that this celebration is significant in shaping the way in which the natural process of life and death are understood.

The iconographic importance of the skull during this celebration has a significant meaning. According to Stanley Brandes, he there are several different kinds of treats eaten on this celebration which are made in the shape of skulls or skeletons. There are candy skulls made of white sugar with colorful decorative sugar frosting on it, which are given as treats to children. There are chocolate caskets with these sugar skeletons inside, viewed through an opening or window, with a string attached that when pulled moves the skeleton as if resurrected. These treats and images are tied to humor and lightheartedness, linked with children and jokes. Brandes explains that this expression of art and philosophy on death has not been thwarted by the oppression Mexico has endured in its history. (“Iconography in Mexico’s…”).

This cultural celebration of death also seems as a way for the living community to help the deceased transition into the afterlife. By having a celebration their honor, even having a picnic over their grave, it still allows the dead to participate in the living world even though they are not bodily present on earth. I agree with Guillermo that this celebration helps the living to cope with the loss of loved ones in coming to terms with the natural processes of life and death.

Annotation: Brandes, Stanley. “Iconography in Mexico’s Day of the Dead: Origins and Meaning.” Ethnohistory. 45.2 (1998): 181-218. 30 Apr. 2008. <http://www.jstor.org/pss/483058>.