One writer reflects on the holiday, its rich history, and the many customs, symbols, and emotions behind it.
Growing up between Tijuana B.C. and San Diego, CA, Día de los Muertos meant one thing to my family and me: pan de muerto. I knew the season was here when the round sweet bread, shimmering in a dusted coat of sugar crystals with a cross atop its plump surface, began to emerge at local panaderías.
For us, the holiday didn’t go much further than its symbolic sweet bread. I’d learn about the celebration at school in Tijuana, where festivities would be on display through colorful cut-out paper banners (a craft known in Mexico as papel picado), altars with sugar skulls, and yellow-and-orange cempasúchil flowers that are believed to be bright enough to guide souls back to their loved ones on November 2nd.
But, my family didn’t have an altar, flowers, or even pictures of our ancestors, for that matter—save for two pencil portraits of my dad’s grandparents.
For the most part, we were far from and out of touch with our extended family in central Mexico. We didn’t know enough about our ancestors, or even our recently deceased, to really mourn them.
Of course, because nothing and no one in this life is promised, I now have a handful of close family members to grieve.
But, it wasn’t until I started learning about my great-great paternal grandparents, Herminia and Cleto, as part of my recent journey to reconnect with my Mexican heritage, that I found myself yearning to more actively remember and honor my dearly departed.
My great-great grandmother, Herminia, was a poet. One of her poems is about a sickly chayote that was revived through her care: “que por mis cuidados/ hermoso ha brotado/ el pobre chayote/ vuelto a renacer.” (English translation: that from my care/ beautifully it has budded/ the poor chayote/ is now reborn.)
Herminia, who was of Russian descent, was said to be as tough as she was maternal, and could supposedly make a mean mole (sauce). She provided for her family while her husband, Cleto, was away during the Mexican Revolution (he was a Zapatista).
My great-aunt, Rosalinda (my official source for paternal family history), told me Herminia gave birth to one of their children while out looking for food alone, huddled between a doorway. The child didn’t make it. Times were very different back then, my great-aunt reminds me while sharing parts of their story.
As for Cleto—born on the same date I was, only 104 years earlier—he survived a bullet wound to the head in the revolution. Back home, he had a Great Dane who’d alert him when the pan dulce was ready at their local panadería. Afterwards, he and his dog would split a big, fresh-baked concha for breakfast.
Herminia and Cleto had six children together. They both died on a Thursday, exactly a week apart.
Día de los Muertos offers a space, almost a season, in time where I can reconnect with my culture while meditating on the lives of my loved ones, even the ones I never got to meet.
Because, in the same breath, commemorating your dead isn’t just remembering them, it’s also an act of remembering yourself.
The holiday originated more than 3,000 years ago and, like many cultural traditions in Mexico, it emerged from Mesoamerican practices.
Mesoamerican people believed in an afterlife that began as a series of journeys to reach a final resting place, and that series of journeys could take several years to complete. The manner in which people died would determine which heaven, of which there were thirteen, they would call home.
Because the dead’s journey would be so arduous, the living would bury them with food, like chocolate and maíz, supplies, and sometimes, their canine companions who were sacrificed to aid them along the way. (Dogs were believed to be spiritual guides for humans within ethereal realms.)
The funeral ceremony would take place over the course of two months—one month for children to observe, the other for adults. Loved ones would sometimes revisit and replenish offerings for years, depending on how long they believed it would take for their family member to reach their resting place.
Spanish Catholics celebrated their dead on All Saints Day, November 1st. They’d visit the cemetery, pray, and eat roasted chestnuts and pastries, like almond cakes and marzipan rolls called hueso de santo or “saint’s bones.”
When the Spanish colonized Mexico in the early 16th century, some Indigenous traditions would survive by existing within the imposed Spanish rule, thus forging new traditions. Months of rituals were shortened to two days—for instance, November 1st, Day of the Innocent (children), and November 2nd, Day of the Dead.
Still, the holiday wouldn’t become part of Mexico’s national identity until after the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, when printmaker and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada created images of women with skull faces doused in white make-up donning French garb.
The skulls were satirical and political commentary on high-society Mexicans who strived to look more European by whitening their skin with makeup and embracing Euro-centrism.
One of Posada’s most famous works was a 1910 print titled La Calavera Catrina, where the image of a skeletal figure in a European-styled hat was first seen. Soon after, “La Catrina” would embody the face of the Día de los Muertos holiday, and thus become a national icon.
A Tapestry of Customs
Today, tradition usually involves families decorating at-home altars with candlelight, flowers, photos of their dearly departed, and their loved one’s favorite foods. Observers read letters and poetry, and tell stories and jokes about the dead they’re honoring.
If the departed enjoyed a specific beer or tequila, you can bet there will be plenty of that in the mix, too.
Families also tend to clean their loved one’s graveyards in preparation for the festivities to come. They take food like tamales, tequila, sugar skulls, water, chiles, and pan de muerto, and bring cempasúchil flowers as offerings.
Legend says the scent from the food and light from the flowers (which represent the sun) is thought to be powerful enough to help guide the souls back home.
Of course, customs vary from region to region.
Some festivities, like in Mexico City, include parades with live musical performances and people celebrating in full La Catrina dress and makeup, giving the returning souls a warm and festive welcome.
In Costa Chica, where a large population of Afro-Mexican people reside, they honor their dead by dancing “the dance of the devils” while wearing “devil masks,” a tradition steeped in African roots. In Campeche, people partake in a ritual bone-washing.
As much as Día de los Muertos is a stronghold in Mexican culture, it’s not only celebrated in Mexico.
People in Belize prepare altars and Mayan dishes. Peruvians have a feast honoring the deceased with their favorite foods. Haitian people celebrate Fête Gede (festival of the dead) with singing, dancing, and drinking.
In the United States, where the population is almost 19% Latino, people celebrate Day of the Dead from New York to Arizona.
And, of course, there are the people and families like mine, who celebrate quietly and simply with just pan de muerto and a hot drink, like coffee or champurrado (a hot, chocolate-flavored maiz beverage).
A Personal Awakening
In my life, this holiday has been a bite, a flavor, a fleeting feeling. It’s taken me a while to understand just how healing it is to commemorate people I’ve loved and lost—even if I didn’t know them when they were alive. Learning about my ancestors has been crucial to learning about myself.
These days, I look forward to holding Día de los Muertos with a little more care. I plan on building my first altar, setting it with cempasúchil, leaving offerings tailored to my departed—a chayote for Herminia, a concha for Cleto—and encouraging my partner to do the same.
But, between the stories, offerings, and photographs, there will always be the bites of a delicious pan muerto (mine will be vegan), where I’ll practice my most intimate and familiar part of this tradition, and quietly remember my dead in the thick of the crumb.
The history of a culture is time-honored in remembrance and celebration. Let’s take a look at a few more:
Cover image via Belikova Oksana.