Tag Archives: day of the dead

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/