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The History Of Día de los Muertos

Culture & Community By O. DELGADO
The History Of Día de los Muertos

Nope, it's not Mexican Halloween, it is a celebration of life.

Día de Los Muertos celebrates the lives of our departed loved ones and the new life that comes from death. 

It helps us recognize that death is just the next step in life's journey, and that no one really dies as long as they live on in our memories. 

Día de Los Muertos originated 5,000 years ago in the cultures of the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America, including the Aztec, Maya, and Toltec.

The Aztecs believed that the souls of their ancestors went to an underworld called Mictlān, where they are protected by Mictecacihuatl, the "Lady of the Dead" and Queen of Mictlān, who uses the bones of the dead to make new life.

Once a year, she arises to visit the living, bringing the souls of our ancestors with her.

Aztecs believed it was offensive to mourn the dead.  Instead, they celebrated life.

Instead of a few days in November, the Aztecs held a month-long celebration during Mictecacihuatl's visit in August, honoring of the "Lady of the Dead" and their ancestors with music, dances, and ofrendas.

Over time, Catholic observances blended with the original indigenous spiritual beliefs, giving rise to our modern Día de Muertos traditions, which we celebrate on November 1st, "Dia de los Inocentes," and November 2nd, "All Souls' Day" or "Dia de los Difuntos."

The tradition lives on. 

Even after thousands of years, the essential elements of the original indigenous tradition remain the same, and Día de los Muertos continues to be a celebration of life throughout Mexico, Central, and South America. 

We place pictures of our loved ones and their favorite things on the altar, honoring them, celebrating the lives they led, and calling them back to us.

Like our indigenous ancestors, we make ofrendas, offerings, to the spirits who are returning to visit us on these special days.

Ofrendas traditionally include each of the four elements:

Water - represented by a glass or pitcher of water, so spirits can quench their thirst

Wind - represented by papel picado

Earth - represented by food, especially pan de muerto and fruit 

Fire - represented by candles, sometimes in the form of a cross to represent the cardinal directions, so the spirits can find their way

Altars also include things the person loved in life. 

So in addition to a glass of water, your altar might include a shot of tequila, a bottle of cerveza, or a can of coke.  Instead of pan de muerto, you might have a tamal or a bag of Doritos.

We decorate graves and altars with cempasuchil, the Aztec marigold, so that the flowers' vibrant color and smell will help guide the spirits back to our world.

Altars can be incredibly elaborate...



Or simple...


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And we continue to celebrate with music and dancing... 



Including La Danza de Los Tecuanes, a dance symbolizing the hunting of a jaguar or tiger by farmers, and La Danza de Los Viejitos, in which four dancers representing elders, the four elements, and the colors of corn, ask for a good harvest and call to the spirits.



Día de Los Muertos helps us recognize that as long as we keep our loved ones and ancestors alive in our memories, they are never truly gone.

May generations ahead continue to celebrate this beautiful tradition long after we've taken that next step into "el más allá."


IG: @oliviacristinadelgado
Twitter: @olivdelgadodice


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