Thanks to pop culture, media and terrible Halloween make-up, chances are you’ve heard of Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead). But, unless you are Latinx and celebrate the holiday yourself, you probably don’t know about its roots, like how it originated, what we do during the celebration, and what all the imagery you saw in Disney’s Coco actually represents.
Día de Muertos is a three day long celebration traditionally takes place between October 31st and November 2nd, where families and communities come together to honor and remember our loved ones who have passed onto the afterlife. During Día de los Muertos, they get to return to the land of the living. For many people, the idea of “celebrating death” might seem counterintuitive, but for many Latinx cultures, death is not seen as “the end” but simply a natural part of one’s spiritual journey. The dead are very much still members of the community and live on in spirit and through our memories of them.
While it varies between cultures and countries, and has changed over time, the 3 days have 3 typical purposes:
October 31st is spent preparing for the returning spirits. We clean up their graves and spruce up the cemeteries. November 1st is Día de los Angelitos/Inocentes (Day of the Little Angels/Innocents) where we honor the returning spirits of children and infants. Lastly, November 2nd is considered Día de Muertos proper (or All Souls Day) where the spirits of adults get to join the party.
In pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, the festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead”, or the Aztec goddess of the dead, Mictecacihuatl. Originally, the Aztecs celebrated Día de Muertos for a month. When the Spainards attacked and invaded Mexico in the 16th century, colonization and forced assimilation condensed Día de Muertos to coincide with the Christian triduum of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Though most people associate Día de Muertos with Mexico, there are several Latinx countries and cultures honor the dead in similar celebrations.
For example, in Bolivia they celebrate Día de las Ñatitas and El Salvador has La Calabiuza. In Equador, indigenous Kichwa peoples celebrate on November 2nd with colada morada (a drink made of purple corn and Andean blackberries) and guagua de pan (a bread shaped like a swaddled infant that can be savory or filled with guava paste). Meanwhile, in Guatemala, they construct huge, vibrantly colorful kites to communicate with the dead and show them where to come down to visit their families.
It’s important to note that we’re talking about “spirits” and not “ghosts”. “Ghosts” implies the supernatural or paranormal which is an offensive insinuation. Westerners often associate Latinx belief systems with the “supernatural”. While Westerners claim seeing or communicating with ghosts is a paranormal experience, for us, it’s communing with our ancestors. Our familial ties are so strong, they reach beyond the mortal plane of existence. Because brujería is most often powered by ancestral magic—either passed down through blood, or fueled by the energy of our ancestors—magical realism is a prevalent genre for Latinx fantasy. Día de Muertos is an important holiday because it taps into this power. Generational love is strong enough to keep us connected even in death and reunites us every year.
While familial magic keeps us connected, spirits need a little extra help finding their way back to the land of the living. There are some quintessential tasks that need to be performed and items laid out to help guide spirits home for Día de Muertos.
VISITING GRAVES OF THE DEAD
The first thing we do in preparation of the spirits of the dead returning for Día de Muertos is spruce up the cemeteries. General groundskeeping is done at the graves, like pulling weeds and getting fresh flowers. If old headstones are falling apart, they get repaired. Many cemeteries in Latin America have mausoleums, above ground sarcophagi, or urns placed in small tombs that look almost like bird houses. They’re painted in bright colors and usually get a fresh coat before Día de Muertos celebrations.
During November 1st and 2nd, the cemeteries are packed full of celebrating friends and family. Candle light douses everything in a golden glow, and the air smells of copal incense and sweet marigolds. We gather to welcome back the spirits of the dead and remember them through song, dance and jokes. Cemeteries become bright, beautiful beacons during Día de Muertos thanks to elaborate ofrendas.
We set up ofrendas at home and gravesites to welcome the spirits back. Certain food, personal items and incense are used to help guide them to the world of the living. A typical ofrenda consists of three “steps” that are draped in a serape and adorned with papel picado. The top step displays who the ofrenda is for with photographs of the deceased person and pictures or statues of various saints. The second step is used to make the returning spirit feel welcomed and at home. Personal belongings of the deceased and their favorite food and drink are often placed on this step. For adults, there’s usually tequila or mezcal, while the second step on a child’s ofrenda may have their favorite toys. Lastly, the bottom step is ladened with candles and copal incense. Sometimes, families even place a mirror, soap and bowl of water for the returning spirit to cleanse themselves after their journey. While the components of an ofrenda can vary greatly, a common staple is the calavera.
Calaveras, or “sugar skulls”, have become popular in recent years, especially during Halloween, but they’re actually a very sacred part of Día de Muertos and honoring our ancestors. Calaveras came into existence in the 17th century when colonization robbed Mexico of their resources and independence. While trying to figure out a way to celebrate Día de Muertos without having the means to buy items for ofrendas, they used the one resource they had plenty of: sugar.
The first calaveras were made by pressing sugar into clay molds. Nowadays, you can buy the supplies at a grocery store—sugar, egg whites and water—and you can find calavera molds at any Latinx market. Instead of being creepy or morbid, calaveras are decorated by piping brightly colored royal icing onto the sugar skull in patterns and swirls. Sometimes, they’re adorned with sequins, feathers and colorful foil. They are beautiful, ornate and placed on ofrendas with the name of the deceased loved one written across their forehead. Sugar skulls aren’t the only edible staple of Día de Muertos. Traditional food made for the holiday includes mole, hot chocolate, and tamales (ancient Aztecs actually soaked tamales in blood as offerings to appease the gods). Pan dulce—sweet bread—is popular to make for Día de Muertos, especially pan de muerto.
PAN DE MUERTO
Pan de muerto is a traditional pan dulce made specifically for Día de Muertos. The sweetened soft bread is shaped into the size of a bun and can be flavored with anise seeds or orange zest. The top of the bun is decorated with pieces of dough shaped into skulls and bones in a cross or a circle. Sometimes there’s also tear drop shapes to represent Aztec goddess Chīmalmā’s tears for the living.
Pan de muerto is enjoyed by both the living and the dead. While food is placed on ofrendas for spirits to feast, they only eat the “essence” of the food. That means, after Día de Muertos ends and the spirits have enjoyed the essence of the food laid out for them, the physical food that remains doesn’t have any nutritional value. That means you can eat ofrenda leftovers guilt-free because they don’t contain any calories anymore. My family calls this “eating ghost calories” as a way to not feel guilty for gorging on all the delicious food during Día de Muertos. While carbo-loading is a great perk, my favorite part of Día de Muertos is being surrounded by beautiful Aztec Marigolds.
The Flor de Muerto (“Flower of the Dead”) is the Aztec Marigold, otherwise known as Cempasúchitl. Their use is another tradition that dates back to the Aztec’s honoring the goddess of the dead, Mictecacihuatl. Cempasúchitl were sacred to the Aztecs and were bred to create bigger, more attractive blooms. Made up of hundreds of golden-yellow petals (and sometimes deep red), marigolds have a strong scent similar to apples.
Marigolds are an important staple of Día de Muertos. We use stalks of sugarcane to create arches and decorate them with marigolds. These arches are placed at the head of ofrendas and graves and serve as a gateway for spirits to cross over from the land of the dead, to the land of the living. During Día de Muertos, cemeteries are full of paths laid out with marigold petals. Their brightly colored petals and intense smell help guide spirits to their awaiting ofrendas and loved ones. Some families set up their main ofrendas in their homes and lay out marigold paths all the way through town to the cemetery.
Marigolds are also used in intricate displays at ofrendas. For some folks, this has become a sort of competition. They create elaborate latices of marigolds in the shape of skulls or crosses. I’ve even seen the grave of a child adorned with a life-sized bicycle constructed entirely of marigold blooms.
Día de Muertos has become a more popular holiday in the U.S. because of the sharing and reach of Latinx culture, as well as media representation. Disney’s Coco was wildly popular and a far-reaching introduction of Día de Muertos to non-Latinx folks. The movie did a wonderful job of accurately representing the holiday and cultural traditions, and it also gave us a rich story steeped in Latinx magic. The animated film The Book of Life is another excellent example. The story begins on Día de Muertos where two Latinx deities, La Muerte and Xibalba, strike up a bet. What I love about The Book of Life is that it touches on ancient Latinx origins of Día de Muertos. La Muerte (Lady Death) is based off the Aztec goddess of the dead, Mictecacihuatl, while Xibalba (the antagonist) is named after the underworld in K’iche’ Maya mythology.
When it comes to books, there are a wealth of wonderful picture books depicting Día de Muertos. Rosita Y Conchita by Eric Gonzalez is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a bi-lingual story about a little girl named Conchita who celebrates the life of her passed sister, Rosita, by setting up an ofrenda for her on the Día de Muertos. This story plucks at my heartstrings because it walks the reader through the Día de Muertos rituals and how spirits find their way back to their loved ones. Most importantly, I really enjoy how it emphasizes that death is not the end.
Love Sugar Magic by Anna Meriano is a fantastic Middle Grade novel about a girl finding out the women in her family who run the local bakery are also brujas (Latinx witches). I love this book because of the amazing Latinx food and how it brings to life our belief that we put magic and love into the food we cook, and that during Día de Muertos, it lets us commune with the dead. When it comes to Latinx fantasy, my favorite novel is Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova. While not explicitly about Dia de Muertos, Córdova’s Young Adult novel focuses on themes closely tied to the holiday: brujeria, Latinx mythos and strong family relationships. The main character (Alex), her mother and sisters have strong bonds and share a fierce love for one another. The importance of familial relationships are front and center in this novel, while also introducing readers to Latinx mythos and creatures.
When I was writing my debut novel, Cemetery Boys, I wanted to bring to life a story that explored the themes of Día de Muertos. Cemetery Boys features an entire Latinx cast in East Los Angeles the few days leading up to Día de Muertos. The main character, Yadriel, is a gay, transgender brujo who is trying to fit into his community of brujx who can all see and communicate with lost spirits of the dead. Yadriel is preparing for Día de Muertos with his family and community—the first one he’ll be able to see his mom again since she died—while also harboring the spirit of a stubborn boy who was just recently killed. It’s steeped in ancient Latinx mythos and heritage, and filled with magic, spirits, and death gods. The fantasy genre really opens up the space for Latinx writes to tell stories about our culture because it’s so inherently bonded to the magical and spiritual.
As a reader and writer, it’s been incredible to see Latinx stories written by Latinx writers that reclaim our traditions. As more of us enter the world of publishing, I’ve been able to read books where I saw my culture reflected on the page. I can’t wait for Cemetery Boys to be a part of that lexicon for readers, and I’m especially excited to someday read the books Latinx authors are out there writing right now.
Aiden Thomas is a YA author with an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Originally from Oakland, California, they now make their home in Portland, OR. As a queer, trans Latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden’s special talents include: quoting The Office, Harry Potter trivia, Jenga, finishing sentences with “is my FAVORITE”, and killing spiders. Aiden’s debut novel, Cemetery Boys, is a contemporary fantasy set during Dia de Muertos about Yadriel (a gay, trans brujo) who accidentally summons the wrong spirit (Swoon Reads/Macmillan, July 2020).