Family Traditions: Dia de Los Muertos

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Day of the Dead Altar. Photo by Andrea Vitela

Most, if not all, students at UD know All Saints’ Day, but most are not aware of Dia de Los Muertos, celebrated Nov. 1-2. 

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday of Aztec origin celebrated in Mexico to honor loved ones that have passed away. While Disney’s “Coco” did a great job of depicting an old-fashioned Mexican family celebrating it, my family’s altar is not involved with decades’ worth of drama with a dead Mexican celebrity. The holiday is exciting nonetheless. 

Cempasúchil flowers are gathered, pecked and multi-colored paper and cloth is taken out of the closet, and a bottle of tequila is specially prepared as my family anticipates the month of November. As we begin to build the altar for my grandma, we consider what she enjoyed doing as a woman living her best life in Mexico in the 1960s. 

Each little thing prepared on the altar holds its own special meaning. The cempasúchil flowers are bright, gold marigolds native to Mexico that are said, with their distinct odor, to lead the dead to their altar. The pecked paper seems to have different meanings, but some say the paper holes are for the spirits to move through, and to others, the flowy paper represents how spirits move through the air. 

There are many similarities between altars, but what is special about the Day of the Dead’s altars is that they honor each specific person and the life they lived. A grown woman’s altar may include many things, such as makeup or a ring, and a child’s altar will contain things like toys or their favorite outfit. These little things let the spirits from the land of the dead pass by to visit their family. 

A week before November, my grandpa comes all the way from Durango, Mexico and brings us my grandmother’s favorite pair of shoes, a bag, and a tequila bottle to put on the altar. 

The shoes are for remembering how she danced to traditional Mexican music in the streets of the little town she grew up in. The bag is to remember her love of shopping. 

And, of course, a Day of the Dead altar is not complete without the Mexican household staple — a Herradura or Don Julio bottle. 

After we have gathered the things to remember her by, we compile the basics included in an altar — “Pan de Muerto,” or bread of the dead, a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, candles, skulls and more.

All these things are included to make sure the soul of our grandma feels welcomed when she visits our shrine and to show that we have not forgotten her. 

Although I never met my grandma, I hear her footsteps on the barely-there pavement of my mom’s childhood home; I picture her carrying her bag to mass on Sundays; and I imagine her having a laugh over a shot of her favorite alcohol. 

When Dia de los Muertos begins on Nov. 1, my family celebrates it by praying the rosary, singing a couple of songs and telling stories. My mom and grandpa retell these stories to feed our memory so we can do it for future generations. 

Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful holiday full of color and familial love. It gives us a chance to appreciate our loved ones who have passed and it lets them take a peek into the lives they helped start. 

So like the movie “Coco” says, recuerdame. Remember your loved ones, though they have had to say goodbye. 

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