Celebrating Life on Día de los Muertos

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Celebrating Life on Día de los Muertos
portrait of Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
by Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
Published on November 1, 2021
Reviewed by Susana Muñoz, Ph.D.

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Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) — a holiday that celebrates and honors deceased loved ones — occurs on the first and second of November each year. Originating over 3,000 years ago, Día de los Muertos honors the lives of loved ones and invites the dead to leave the spirit realm and visit the living world.

What Happens on Día de los Muertos?

Día de los Muertos is a holiday rooted in Indigenous culture. It celebrates and honors the lives of deceased loved ones. Nov. 1 is set aside to remember the lives of children who have died, while Nov. 2 is used to honor adults.

Indigenous Mesoamericans viewed death as part of life's natural cycle. They believed that the living should celebrate the old life of a loved one, building the foundation of Día de los Muertos.

Dancing, music, food, special activities, and visits to gravesites often take part on Día de los Muertos. Families and friends welcome loved ones back into the living world.

Loved ones build ofrendas — or altars — that honor the dead. Ofrendas often hold photographs of the deceased and items that celebrate their lives. Elements of water, wind, earth, and fire typically find space on ofrendas, as well.

What Is the History of Día de los Muertos?

Thousands of years ago, on the ancient lands of what are now Mexico and Central America, Indigenous people began celebrating and honoring the lives of loved ones who died.

As time passed and colonists took over much of the Mesoamerican lands, Día de los Muertos grew into its modern-day celebration. The combination of Indigenous traditions, All Souls' Day, and All Saint's Day have contributed to the development and evolving cultural interpretation of Día de los Muertos. Celebrated widely across Latin America, the holiday is most commonly connected to Mexican heritage.

As Latino/a populations grow in the United States, connected cultures become an influential part of society. The 2017 production of "Coco" — a Disney animated story centering on the traditions of Día de los Muertos — highlights the growing popularity of the holiday in the U.S.

Symbols and Traditions

Symbols associated with Día de los Muertos play a significant role in uplifting the traditions of the holiday. Each symbol represents a unique quality that enhances the celebration of lives once lived.

Ways to Celebrate and Support Día de los Muertos

Learning to appreciate and represent cultural celebrations means uplifting the traditions of a community. Instead of highlighting the celebrations of Día de los Muertos as your own discovery or creation, honor the holiday's history and traditions.

When considering calavera catrina makeup, creating ofrendas, and adorning spaces with marigolds, share your learnings about these traditions with friends and family. Provide opportunities for others to learn about the beauty of Día de los Muertos. Also, despite similar dates, Día de los Muertos and Halloween do not share traditions. The holidays often find themselves problematically and unnecessarily linked.

Conclusion

Día de los Muertos honors the lives of the people we love. The holiday holds a rich history of traditions and celebrations connecting the spirit and living worlds. Uplift and celebrate the people you love as you build your understanding of Día de los Muertos.

Reviewed by:

Dr. Susana M. Muñoz is Associate Professor of higher education, Program Coordinator of the Higher Education Leadership (HEL) Program, and Co-Director of CSU initiatives for the Race and Intersectional Studies for Educational Equity (RISE) Center in the School of Education at Colorado State University (CSU). Her scholarly interests center on the experiences of minoritized populations in higher education. Specifically, Dr. Muñoz focuses her research on issues of equity, identity, and campus climate for undocumented Latinx students, while employing perspectives such as legal violence, racist nativism, Chicana feminist epistemology to identify and dismantle power, oppression, and inequities as experienced by these populations. She utilizes multiple research methods as mechanisms to examine these matters with the ultimate goal of informing immigration policy and higher education practices.

Dr. Muñoz has been honored by the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics for her teaching and research. She was also recognized as a Salzburg Global Fellow and named one of the "top 25 most influential women in higher education" by Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine. She also brings 13 years of student affairs experience in multicultural affairs, Greek life, diversity and leadership training, TRiO programs, and residence life.

Susana Muñoz is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

Feature Image: MStudioImages / E+ / Getty Images

Understand the history and importance of Indigenous Peoples' Day. Discover ways to respectfully celebrate the holiday and spread the word. Learn about the history of Hispanic Heritage Month and discover how to celebrate with activities and useful resources. From parties to pumpkin drops to haunted houses, learn which schools celebrate the season with fun and spooky Halloween college traditions.

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