Tag Archives: day of the dead

Dia de Los Muertos

Informant information
Nationality: Afro-Latina American  
Occupation: Teacher 
Residence: California
Date of Performance/Collection: Apr 9, 2022
Primary Language: English 
Other Language(s): Spanish

My informant is my co-worker who is Afro-Latina and while sitting at the front desk, we started talking about Dia de Los Muertos.

X-  Whatever you put on your altar is supposed to– it’s like– so on your altar, you’re putting, ideally, you’re putting objects and food and bread that were like favorite dishes from the person who died, so you’re celebrating the person who died and usually celebrate on the first and second. The first I believe is for the children or that’s the second, the second is children,  the first for the adults, and what happens is on the first, the veil comes down, and that allows for the souls to pass back onto the land of the living and they are supposed to come and see the altar and eat the food and drink the liquor and you just celebrate with your family members or whoever and that celebration in the evening. And cultures go– go down to the graveyard and go build their alters around the gravestone then they go back to their houses and they eat all the food and they celebrate the life of the person who passed because day of the dead isn’t about mourning, it’s about celebrating them and so you’ll put their photos of who died and it’s it’s it’s really just like a celebration of living like a grand party. 

I didn’t know much about Dia de Los Muertos before having this conversation with X, but I learned a lot in understanding that it is not a day of mourning but of celebration and I think that’s really beautiful.

Ofrendas on the Day of the Dead

Main piece:

JH: For day of the dead families usually put an altar up. In Spanish it’s known as an ofrenda. So on Day of the Dead, you put up the person’s favorite food on the altar, and it’s a really sweet occasion. We do it every year. So like, if I died I would get tamales and like boba or something, and everyone would believe that my spirit will come back to enjoy those treats. Oh, you also put a picture of the person as well as their favorite flower and a candle. 


The informant, JH, is was born in the United States. She currently lives in Orange County and attends USC. Her parents are from Mexico. This piece was collected over a phone call, in a conversation when we were talking about family traditions.


This was a tradition I had heard of before, both from other friends and just popular culture in general. I think it’s an interesting addition that JH added that on her altar, there would be “tamales and boba” –– tamales being something more culturally similar to the celebration, and boba being something more from the specific context and era that JH grew up in. This goes to show that this celebration is something that manifests in different ways across different contexts and families, lending itself to Dundes’ folklore definition of “multiplicity and variation.”

Day of the Dead Ritual

Context: The following is an account from the informant, my younger sister. She told me this from one of her conversations with a friend at school.

Background: The informant was relating to the annual Day of the Dead rituals her Mexican friend and her family performed. Although they didn’t necessarily believe in everything, such as the dead actually eating food, they still performed the ritual without fail.

Main piece: 

Friend: Every year on Día de Muertos, my family makes pan de muerto, which is just normal bread with decorations like bones on it. We always make a lot of it, and although we eat most of it, we always leave some for my grandmother also.

Informant: Did she –

Friend: Yeah, she’s dead. So we usually just leave it out overnight along with the things that she liked.

Informant: Like what?

Friend: Oh… things like some stuff she knitted, I guess? That’s all I really remember right now.

Informant: What do you do with the bread the next day?

Friend: We just throw it out. But we eat the rest of it ourselves though. I don’t think my parents really believe in the whole thing, but we always leave it out anyways.

Analysis: Looking at how the friend describes pan de muerto as “normal” bread, I’m led to believe she may be from Oaxaca as it seems that fits the description for the area. It’s interesting to see that she and her family appear to be participating in this festival perhaps due to a mix of social festivities and nostalgia rather than due to actual belief that it is the Day of the Dead.



The informant is a 23 year old Japanese male. He was born in Nagoya, Japan where he spent the first half of his life. When he was 13, he came to the United States to attend high school and has been living in California ever since. The informant currently resides in Inglewood, CA and works in animation. The folklore he shared with me is what he experienced growing up in Japan.

Similarly to the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, in August, there is an event called Obon. The entire thought behind it is that your ancestors, the people you love who have passed away, will be coming back to the living world to visit you for a month, and then they will return to the land of the dead once it is over. When you put out your incense, they can come back to the mortal realm by following the smoke that rises from the incense. We have cemeteries. In it, you will usually find a nook or crevice that holds a metal tray that holds three cylinders. Two on the side are for incense and the one in the middle is for a candle. So you light the candle first, you put the incense over it, and you place it back into the crevice.You can also bring flowers for people who were unidentified when they died, like during a war. 

Another big thing is food offerings, specifically rice or oranges. Another one is for beer and sake. 

You clap your hands, put them togethers and pray for them, perhaps this is just what my parents do, but they say non non. I don’t know what it means, it’s just something that you say when you pray. 

You also clean the stone or granite of the tombstone. You are given a bucket and a ladle, which you fill up with water and use to clean the stone. My parents always used to say that it’s like you’re washing their backs and washing their heads. So I always used to imagine when I went to the cemetery that I was washing my ancestor’s head and back. 

The cemetery where my family is located also has a large section for unidentified people that do not have loved ones to care for them or to celebrate obon with them. You’re not supposed to pray to them, or they can get attached to you, but you can say something very short like non non. So, you splash water onto them, you give them incense, you give them flowers, just to make sure that they are being cared for.

Analysis:Fascination with death is universal. It is an inevitability that all cultures grapple with and attempt to process in their own ways. In order to feel like they have a better understanding of death, as well as wanting a chance to see their lost loved ones again, some cultures have created festivals for this exact purpose. The time of year in which a festival takes place is rarely coincidental and has significance that correlates to the life cycle, as represented by the seasons. Obon is held mid August which represents a time of transition between summer and autumn. A transition between a season where everything is in bloom and thriving, to one that is more symbolic of death or decay.

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.”