Sugary candy skulls. Bright, fragrant marigolds. Faces painted like skeletons. The trappings of Day of the Dead are familiar to many people across the West. But there’s more to this spirited fall holiday than meets the eye: Its artistry and revelry represent time-honored traditions deeply rooted in Mexican culture.
El día de los muertos, as it’s known in Spanish, originated in pre-Hispanic times to honor the lives of loved ones who’d passed away. Its modern name is a bit of a misnomer: Day of the Dead celebrates the continuity of life and spans at least three days, Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. It is believed that during this time the border between the spirit realm and physical world dissolves, giving families an opportunity to welcome back the souls of their dearly departed for a brief reunion. Families entice the deceased to awaken from their eternal slumber by adorning their graves with flowers, creating elaborate altars, holding candlelight vigils and processions, and preparing traditional foods.
“We don’t want to forget the people we loved, and día de los muertos is a way to remember them,” explains Mary Andrade, an award-winning journalist who has spent decades studying the holiday and served as cultural adviser to Disney/Pixar’s critically acclaimed film Coco. “It’s important to keep their memory alive, so this is a time to honor what they gave us and the community, country, or world.”
In 2020, a tumultuous year that has brought significant loss to families around the globe, Day of the Dead may be more poignant than ever. Jessica Paz-Cedillos, the executive director of San Jose’s School of Arts & Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, explains: “Día de los muertos is not only about honoring those who’ve passed away, but also about remembering the importance of coming together and connecting with our friends and family. To me, it’s all about community and celebrating the gift of life.”