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.