History and Traditions of Dia De Los Muertos
As a gringa, it would be easy to simply walk about the city and enjoy the vibrant nights of Dia De Los Muertos. While I of course enjoyed the evenings, I also tried to take time to research and investigate the cultural and historical significance of Dia De Los Muertos.
Dia De Los Muertos represents a particularly interesting holiday in Mexico because of its roots in Pre-hispanic, Aztec culture.
Over 3,000 years ago, the Aztecs believed that one should not grieve dead ancestors and loved ones, but rather celebrate their lives in full. Thus, as the Monarch butterflies migrated south in the autumn, they found joy and celebration in remembering the value of life. Later, when the Spanish came to Mexico, the Catholic traditions of All Saints Day coincided with the early November holiday.
Now, Dia De Los Muertos finds itself evolving even further as American and European traditions of Halloween slither into the celebrations.
Offerings serve as the center of Dia De Los Muertos tradition. Depending on regional traditions, families offer special offerings, called oferendas, to their deceased loved ones and ancestors. Typically, these oferendas are items such as:
Sugar skulls. The sugar-based candies, fashioned into the shape of skulls, represent the vitality of life and personality of los muertos.
Food. Of course, food. Family members and loved ones offer tamales, an outrageously tasty corn based dough wrapped in corn husk or banana leaves, flavoured with salsas and various types of meat
Pan de Muertos. This is a semi-sweet bread. Sometimes they come in the shapes of bones or heads, but I mostly saw them simply in a round, doughy shape. The Pan de muertos I saw here in Oaxaca, though, typically was in a simple circular shape and has a small, colourful, head, made of hardened dough, stuck into the bread.
Seeds. Sometimes, pumpkin or amaranth seeds are offered. This is a particularly interesting offering as Aztecs used amaranth instead of sugar to make the skulls
Alcohol. What Mexican fiesta is complete without traditional alcohol? Typically, mezcal or pulque, which is a fermented beverage made from the sap of maguey or agave, is offered to loved ones (and, of course, drank by those still living). I enjoy the taste and texture of pulque; it has a natural sweetness similar to pineapple and a slimy texture like coconut milk.
Flores de Zempasuchitl. Zempasuchitl, Marigold in english, is thought to attract the dead. It’s seen as a symbol of death in the Aztec culture, and often used to decorate doorways and alters in Mexico.
Copalli incense. This is admittedly one of my favorite offerings. The copalli incense, coming from the copal tree, offers a sweet perfumed smell. The burning of the sappy copal shards symbolize transformation from physical to supernatural as the physical tree becomes perfumed smoke that carries prayers to the gods and heavens.
Some other items of Dia De Los Muertos include representations of the four live elements: water, fire, wind, and earth. For water, clay pitchers full of fresh water are left as a part of the oferenda. Fire is represented through lit candles left on the table of the oferenda alter. Wind is shown through finely cut banners of tissue paper cutouts called papel picado. Finally, food items such as tamales and pan de muertos represent the earth.
My Experience with Dia De Los Muertos
I explored the city and graveyards on two nights of Los Muertos, lucky enough to tag along with Mexicans who could explain and point out occurrences of Dia De Los Muertos. I felt equally joyful and in awe of the festivities: adobe walls with candles carefully places in the ledges, bouncy music, bold costumes, and zealous spirit that seemed to flow through the air. Listening to the mariachi bands blair their horns and sing slow, strong, tunes, I vowed that when I return to Oaxaca, I would take up my musicianship again and join a mariachi band. I enjoyed taking in the painted faces, the thick makeup intricately designed to look like skulls.
My highlight of the two nights occurred when we passed through a parade. We stumbled into the parade almost by accident. If I gave one piece of advice to anyone in Oaxaca for Dia De Los Muertos: follow the music. You’re sure to find the party. Sure enough, as we followed the music, we found the hundred-plus party-goers crowded in one of the many open space’s in the city.
Entering the plaza where the parade was settled, A festively grinning man offered us small plastic cups filled with Mezcal. Strolling into the plaza, I felt transformed by the crowd. Music blared through the brass instruments of over 20 band members. Costumed characters jiggered and jived in the swirl of people. I giggled as the towering grim reaper stamped his felt scythe on the ground and wiggled his hips in time with the beat.
Two horses, accompanies by men complete in full Mexican cowboy costume, trotted around the stone plaza, patiently resting at standstills whenever children or eager adults requested a photo. I turned just in time to see three or four people holding large wicker baskets chucking apples, candies, and plastic bowls into the crowd, people cheering and throwing their hands into the air in hopes of catching one of the Los Muertos prizes.
The whole ordeal lasted no more than an hour. On whose cue I do not know, perhaps the band, the entire crowd suddenly seemed to move at once, shuffling through the plaza entrance and spilling out into the streets. They began their promenade, I was later told, to another plaza, and then another, where the affair would repeat.