Día de los Muertos: Celebrating the Day of the Dead


Hello! and ¡Hola! I’m new here so I thought I’d introduce myself so you get a better idea of who I am. I am so, so thrilled to be a part of Detroit Mom. I can’t wait to dive into any questions you might have about Mexican customs and anything related to our culture.

Both my parents were born and raised in Mexico from the northern city of Monterrey. My dad was an engineer and my mom pursued a career in fashion before marrying young and starting a family right away. I bare the influence of two different worlds: from my dad’s side, a conservative, very educated family where women were always organized, timely, and always knew the etiquette rules; to my mom’s side, where everything was easygoing, five daughters in the house, always being loud, and always cooking for the next family party.

I spent part of my early childhood in Mexico and I grew up in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. My husband and I met on Facebook and dated long distance for a very short period before we got married. Our honeymoon flight did not have a return to Denver, but to Detroit. Just like that, I had a new home state. We moved right into our newlywed home and all of a sudden, I was in charge of meals! What?! I found myself cooking from memory the dishes I had helped my mom cook all those years.

Cooking became a coping mechanism for me. It was a way to feel connected to something familiar in a place I knew no one and nothing about. Fast forward a few years, and in explaining the food and the stories, I realized how important these explanations were as I am the only Hispanic influence in my children’s life! I love sharing all of it with you, too. I love making friends with all who love Mexican food.

Speaking of which . . . an emblematic Mexican holiday is upon us. I would love to tell you a bit more about it!  

What is Día de los Muertos?

Photo courtesy Hanna Berry Photography. (IG: @nanna_hanna)

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a Mexican holiday rooted in pre-hispanic origins where those who have departed before us are celebrated and invited back into the living world. The dead find their way to their living loved ones by the aroma of fragrant orange marigolds, called “cempasúchil,” burning incense that creates a mystical bridge connecting the two worlds, and, in various legends, there is a dog that helps the dead cross over from the land of the living to the world of the dead.

Because we live in a highly marketed/consumerist world, you might have seen some items related to this holiday in retailers you frequent. Among the most recognized icons surrounding Day of the Dead are:

  • The Catrina is a colorful skull head decorated in flowers and feminine touches. 
  • Sugar skull candies are skull-shaped, 3-D figurines made of sugar and amaranth, decorated in bright, festive colors.
  • Votives in all colors imitating the style of those placed on Mexican altars offered to the dead (tall cylinder, glass candles). 

The holiday traditions are rich and deeply rooted in history.

This tradition dates back to the pre-hispanic era (before the Spanish colonized Mexico). It is widely celebrated in the center of the republic and in the most southern parts of Mexico. It is customary to set up a multilevel altar where the pictures of the departed are showcased.

The altar includes an offering. This offering usually consists of fruits and traditional Mexican dishes such as Chicken Mole, slow cooked beans from the pot, and freshly steamed rice. They also often include traditional dried fruit candies.

The bunting or banners made of cut-out paper are called “papel picado” which translates to “finely cut” paper. This one is a very literal translation! Papel picado, wherever it is hung, symbolizes a celebration in Mexico. As the list of offerings goes on, the common denominator here is that everything is colorful. 

Day of the Dead is a celebration, rather than a mourning day, to those who celebrate it.

The dearly departed become the center of attention in the family. Memories of them and their favorite dishes are told and remembered in their honor, as if they were living on this special day. It is believed by some that the dead come back to life on this one holiday—thus the importance of leaving a trail for them to follow: the aromas, the colorful paper, the burning candles, and a pathway of the orange marigolds: cempasúchil.

However, where I am from in Mexico (Northern Mexico), people do not really set up altars. We do have the seasonal flowers and the food items like sugar candy and the fluffy, sugar-coated bread called “Bread of the Dead.” The largest of the celebrations are located in rural areas that have larger indigenous populations. The most elaborate and beautiful altars can be found in these regions.

Día de los Muertos has changed throughout history.

Photo courtesy Hanna Berry Photography. (IG: @nanna_hanna)

In fact, this celebration has been around for millennia. It has adapted to the many turns of events that history has dealt it—like the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. They banned the live sacrifices and replaced them with symbolism. For example, Bread of the Dead, a fluffy baked bread with specific components, was to replace the actual beating heart of an Aztec princess offered to their gods. The European influence also added a burlesque flair to the paintings and depicted characters of the holiday and so many more details that I could go on for pages!

The historical importance and how deeply this holiday is embedded in the fabric of Mexican culture has been proclaimed World Heritage by UNESCO. In other words, this tradition is so unique, so beautiful, and so representative of a culture, that The United Nations have deemed it invaluable World Heritage.

Thanks for coming to learn more about this! Have a great day and next time you see some skull heads with flowers, you know they’re called Catrinas!

¡Hasta luego!

Does your family celebrate Día de los Muertos? Tell us in the comments!



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