S: “[T]here’s Día de los Muertos which is Day of the Dead. So for that we like have an alter in our house, which is basically just like pictures of all our dead relatives and we light candles and then we… pray to God that there like in a better place. A lot of the times we go to like the cemetery and we bring like food, their favorite food and we place it at like their grave and like tombstones and that’s you offering up the dead person’s favorite food. I forget what the reasoning is, you might want to research into that, but it’s like so they have something to remind them of their old life, comfort food? I’m not sure but you take their favorite food to their grave site.”
He later told me he celebrates it on November 2nd, but November 1st is celebrated too however that’s only for saints/angels.
S is a Mexican American born in Long Beach, California. His parents are from Mexico. S celebrated this holiday since he was little as his parents taught it to him with one of his earliest memories of Día de los Muertos was celebrating it with and for his grandmother. S’s take on Día de los Muertos is it’s about preserving history and keeping traditions alive.
S: “I like to think about it in terms of like when someone passes there’s a chance they’re not going to be remembered by like history you know? Like so few people get remembered by like the things they contributed to the world. Even historical figures, no one really likes… they just learn about them because you have to, no one really remembers as much. And when it comes to your family, you’re the only person who’s going to remember them. In terms of history, you know, they’re just going to be washed away like they didn’t really exist, so I guess it’s up to you to keep their memory alive and just make sure like the things they did while they were alive matters to you and it means something as a way to keep them like they’re still here, you know? Cause when you die, you’re gone, but your memory lives on and I guess that’s a way to make sure their memory doesn’t also die and they still live on through that which I guess is a big part of Day of the Dead and stuff like that.”
Día de los Muertos is very much about honoring and remembering loved ones. They can be for family members, friends, idols, etc. however important ones are mostly for family members. As S explained, people celebrate this holiday to keep their loved ones alive in spirit as despite being physically gone. The concept of offering foods at graves and alters with pictures of the passed away is similar to the idea Valk explained with ghosts haunting family members and being territorial. Though the spirits of those who passed away here are tied to their graves and alter photos and are not hostile but almost guardian-like.
When I asked my informant if they had any special holiday traditions or rituals, they thought of el Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. S told me that this was one of their favourite holidays, they love the vibrant colours, the joyful celebrations, the delicious food, and the beautiful altars set up in honour of loved ones. S told me that when the sun set, they would stroll down the streets of their neighbourhood every year, watching families setting up their altars for their loved ones who had passed and they would see candles flickering in the night, incense burning, and pictures of happy faces. They would also see lots of marigold blooms set around the altars, known as ‘ofrendas’, and the flower’s bright orange colour and strong fragrance are to help guide the souls of the dead home. S said that their mom would always bring out a tray of fresh pan de muerto which is a sweet bread that is eaten on this holiday, and they all took a piece. They love this holiday because they always felt a strong connection to their ancestors and their culture during el Día de los Muertos, and they said that it will always be a special time for their family and them.
I have always loved hearing stories about el Día de los Muertos and I think that it is such an amazing way of celebrating the life of a loved one who is no longer with us. Growing up, every time the thought of dying and the afterlife came to mind, it would quickly spiral out of control and I would get very anxious and stressed out because I just couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of it. Not knowing what happens when we die is a scary thought and I didn’t really have a comfort to hold onto. This is why I think el Día de los Muertos is such a great holiday because it helps you feel so bonded to your loved ones, even if they were no longer with you. The belief that the spirits of the dead come back from the afterlife to visit and spend time with their families on Earth would have been a very comforting and reassuring thought for me growing up.
F, 18, is a Mexican student at USC. He is from Ciudad Juarez, a city in Mexico that borders El Paso, Texas. F told me about the Mexican festival called Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead.
Every November 2nd, I celebrate with my family a popular Mexican tradition called “Día de Muertos”. This day is celebrated to remember the people that have passed away. We put together an altar in which we include pictures of the people we remember along with objects that reminds us of them. An example is that we put a picture of my grandfather and a book as he loved reading. This tradition helps us stay in touch with our loved ones and remember that they are with us every step of the way.
Día de Muertos is a traditional Mexican festival that happens yearly on November 2nd. It aligns with many other death-related celebrations such as All Souls Day or Halloween because of the life cycle calendar. Many cultures celebrate death around fall and winter, as they symbolize death and the end of a cycle. Then, in spring, the cycle starts anew and begins with fertility and birth celebrations. In this tradition, it is believed that the Day of the Dead is a liminal period in which the dead can visit their living relatives, this liminal period creates a space for magic and festivities that fit outside of the norm. In this traditional festival, people leave objects that the deceased enjoyed during their lifetime on the altar, so they can take joy in them once more.
Informant information Nationality: Afro-Latina American Occupation: Teacher Residence: California Date of Performance/Collection: Apr 9, 2022 Primary Language: English Other Language(s): Spanish
Background 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.
Performance 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.
Thoughts 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.
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.”