The vibrant Mexican and Latin America holiday, Día de los Muertos, which translates to the Day of the Dead, is sometimes coined as “The Mexican Halloween.” However, Día de los Muertos cultural significance differs immensely from Halloween, said students from Latin America. While Halloween focuses more on fear, Joseph Herrera, a senior from Mexico studying intercultural peacebuilding, said Día de los Muertos celebrates death.
“I love the festivities that surround the day of the dead and the bright colors that encompass it. It helps to shine a light on death that it normally doesn’t receive. Death is sometimes seen as taboo, but the Día de los Muertos shows how it is an inevitable part of life—it should be accepted.”
The history behind Día de los Muertos is complicated because it is a mix of Aztec and Catholic traditions. According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, the holiday came from the rituals of the pre-Hispanic people of Mexico. The celebration lasted for a month and was led by the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as “Lady of the Dead.” After the Spanish arrived in Mexico and began converting the native people to Roman Catholicism, the holiday was moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2. Now the holiday is a three-day event with Día de los Muertos starting the festivities on Oct. 31. Modern observances vary from region to region.
For Herrera, Día de los Muertos means eating traditional foods like “pan de muerto,” which is a sweet bread that has a cross in the center. Also, he said his family makes altars to remember their ancestors. “The altar has a picture of them, and it will have their favorite things to show them that they are loved still and remembered.”
Día de los Muertos is something Herrera said he knows is foreign to many Americans. He said he recommends everyone watch the Disney Pixar Movie “Coco” because to him, it is an accurate portrayal of the three-day holiday.
“I think the movie ‘Coco’ has done a great job to illustrate to the American public and the world what the holiday is about. It is about ancestors, remembering where we come from, and celebrating life.”
The Day of the Dead influences other Latin American countries, not just Mexico, according to Gabriela Gomez, a student from Guatemala studying communications and peacebuilding. “Countries that were colonized by Spanish have holidays that are Catholic based, but these holidays change a little bit in every country. For example, my family doesn’t celebrate Día de los Muertos as much as we celebrate Día de los todos Santos.”
For Día De los todos Santos, which translates to “All Souls Day,” Gomez explained how she celebrates the holiday. “We go and decorate the tombs of our beloved ones who passed away. We go and paint them, put flowers, sometimes we carve pumpkins, or put their favorite foods on them.”
Although Herrera and Gomez celebrate in similar ways, Gomez noted it is important to know they are different. For example, she said her family might celebrate differently because her family is not always traditional.
Even with the different interpretations of Día de los Muertos and Día de los todos Santos, Gomez said she finds they all connect because they center on the power of families.
“I like being with all my cousins in the cemetery at night and talking about our families. We tell stories with plenty of joking and laughing,” she said.