Tag Archives: dia de los muertos

Día de los Muertos


AG: “In the Mexican culture, they believe that our ancestors that have passed come back to the land of the living for two nights. We build ofrendas, which are little, a shrine is not the right word, but you put all their favorite foods, pictures of them. Alter is a more colloquial term. 

In our culture, we believe that people die three deaths. The first is when we physically die, when our bodies just stop working, our hearts stop, whatever. The second is when we’re lowered into the ground and buried, so we’re out of sight, or cremated, I guess. And the third one is when there’s no one left to remember us. There’s three deaths or three phases of death.

Usually, my parents put up an alter and we put up pictures of people who have passed in our family with a bunch of flowers, candles, because the candle represents their spirit, essentially. Sometimes we’ll go to, they have a cemetery, called Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and they put a bunch of marigolds up. They do a bunch of alters, ofrendas all over, and you can just visit and pay your respects, and just really reflecting on the lives of the people who have come before.”


AG is a 20-year-old Mexican-American college student from Los Angeles. She celebrates this holiday, which falls on the first two days of November, with her family every year. On this holiday, the living reunite with the spirits of their deceased ancestors. AG said that in comparison to melancholic death rituals like funerals, Dìa de los Muertos is a happy event which celebrates the people who passed away rather than mourning their deaths. She explained that according to Mexican belief, the first two deaths, physical death and burial, are inevitable. However, the third death, which she describes as “dying in the land of the dead” where individuals “fade into oblivion,” can be avoided by remembering individuals who passed away. Dìa de los Muertos functions to prevent this final death, as AG explained, “you preserve their memory through storytelling, through folklore, thereby keeping them alive through their spirits.” 


I find the Mexican folk belief in a realm between life and obsolescence very compelling. Many ideologies delineate life and death as two incompatible states of being which never intersect, so that once a person has passed away, the living have no way of accessing them. This boundary blurring view of life and death places power into the hands of the living, so that there are specific things that they can do and practices that they can carry out in order to come into contact with their lost loved ones again. This power of being able to reconnect with the dead comes with responsibilities, however, where one must continually honor and memorialize their loved one’s lives if they want to maintain this connection. The insistence upon keeping a person’s memory alive after their passing, which prevents the deceased from entering the third stage of death and disappearing, conveys how deeply one’s ancestry and elders are valued and respected in Mexican culture.

Dìa de los Muertos exemplifies the ritualization of liminality, where specific traditions and extraordinary practices are carried out at the time that the realm of the dead and the realm of the living overlap. That the holiday is comprised more of celebration than of mourning shows the comfort found in the belief that physical death doesn’t mean spiritual death.

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.

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.