The cobblestone streets of Pátzcuaro, Mexico, bustle with frenzied preparation in the weeks leading up to Día de Muertos. The city becomes drenched in the warm, golden hues of veladoras and marigolds, and the syrupy waft of fresh loaves of pan de muerto, steamy hot chocolate, and technicolored sugar skulls. Strings of papel picado line roads, and bowls of fresh fruit, cups of water and cerveza, and small dishes of salt sit beside meticulously embellished tiers of ofrendas. Most importantly, the faces of los muertos are prominently seen everywhere.
Día de Muertos has evolved significantly from its Mesoamerican roots, which date back over 3,000 years. The celebration has long existed beyond Mexico in countries within Central and South America, but as the tradition has traveled north into the United States, it has seen another stage of evolution—one that emphasizes consumerism, blends with Halloween, and tragically leaves deceased loved ones behind.
Change is inevitable, but change fueled by colonialism and capitalism can unravel what makes traditions, including Día de Muertos, profound. In recent years, consumers in the United States have been “graced” with Day of the Dead merchandise and Halloween costumes in the same seasonal section at their local big-box store. Head to any Target for a “Day of the Dead Felt Skull Wreath” if you’ve suddenly found yourself needing one, to Etsy for heaps of even more confusing stock like this hilariously poorly translated T-shirt, or any corner store in California for a Día de los Muertos Scratcher (Fun fact, it’s technically a back translation of the celebration’s name from Spanish to English, though it’s used frequently in the United States). Lest we forget that before Coco premiered in 2017, Disney tried to trademark the holiday in advance of the film’s release.
Over time, the sharp satire and class commentary behind Jose Guadalupe Posada’s iconic skeletal dame illustration has been lost in translation in the United States, as well as in Mexico. La Garbancera, now known as La Catrina, was actually a critique of Indigenous Mexicans who attempted to rid themselves of their Brownness in favor of European ways—the message of the decorated skeleton being that no matter how fancy the dress, in death, we are the same. In Coco, viewers are treated to a brief glimpse of a character inspired by the personality, and every year it seems as though more people are donning face paint and costumes in La Catrina styles. I even dressed up like her at a Día de Muertos procession in 2015 without understanding the deeper context and meaning behind the imagery.
However, the more we learn about the world around us or our own roots, the more we change ourselves. Día de Muertos was originally a month-long celebration that honored the deceased based on their cause of death. Later, the practice changed to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which was used to convert Indigenous people to Catholicism and convince them to ditch their own traditions. Yet, many Indigenous elements of the celebration are still thriving: In Mexico, the holiday is considered a bittersweet representation of the country’s complex history of compulsory cultural blending at the hands of Spanish colonization (or “unification,” depending on who is speaking).
Engaging in these practices connected me to my own antepasados and the rituals colonization robbed my ancestors of.
Día de Muertos is a beautiful, meaningful celebration that strips back the fear of death, includes lots of thoughtful symbolism, and incites people to not only speak openly about their dearly deceased, but to share the stories, music, and foods they loved most. It’s a time when graveyards aren’t only reserved for fresh mourners or goths, and joking about death is thoroughly encouraged. At the heart of the celebration is the desire to invite and entice departed souls to spend time with their loved ones during their temporary visits back to earth. It’s also meant to remind us that no matter where we’ve come from or what we’ve done, we’re all just a pile of bones.
While the recent spread of the tradition is hard to pinpoint precisely, Alberto Fierro, executive director of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., explained to NPR in 2017 that the holiday became increasingly observed in urban Mexican areas in the 1980s, whereas it was previously confined to rural, Indigenous communities, coinciding with the emergence of prominent Indigenous rights groups like the EZLN. Mexico has a long-standing, demonstrated history of discrimination against its many Indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities. (The Mexican government refused to acknowledge Indigenous autonomy until 1994.)
As more families of Latin American descent immigrated to the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s, they began celebrating the holiday with greater frequency. Then in 2008, the holiday earned Mexico its first UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage entry—respect for Día de Muertos was now institutionalized and internationally legitimized. My family’s relationship to Día de Muertos is similarly new. In 1968, my mom immigrated from Mexico to the United States as an infant, and though my papi was born in California, he grew up in Michoacán, and didn’t return to the United States until the mid-1980s. My father was intimately familiar with the holiday as it was celebrated in his pueblo, but my mom didn’t celebrate it in the San Francisco Bay Area. Neither parent carried on the tradition while they were together. But as an adult living in Portland, I sorely missed so much of my culture. So, I began actively participating in the holiday and learning about the significance of its history and traditions. Engaging in these practices connected me to my own antepasados and the rituals colonization robbed my ancestors of, and I later learned that my parents and siblings separately embarked on similar journeys around the same time.
A powerful evolution of Día de Muertos has been the emergence of political and philosophically minded altares. Rather than paying respects to a close friend or a family member who has passed, many ofrendas are now constructed to bring attention to global and national issues. In 2006, Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy students in Chicago created an ofrenda titled “Death of a Dream” to represent the lives of the immigrants who have died at the U.S.-Mexico border. During a 2014 visit to Guadalajara for Día de Muertos in the wake of the atrocious #Ayotzinapa43 disappearances, I saw stunning, eight-feet tall, skeletal art sculptures juxtaposed with the faces of each missing student. Banners, altares, and protests around the holiday all begged for answers, action, and collective mourning.
We will all lose people we love if we haven’t yet. We will all die one day and leave loved ones behind. Traditions will evolve, but as they do, it’s crucial to remember their rich, beautiful pasts. Being invited in from the margins can be nice, but there’s a fine line between representation and erasure. The world doesn’t need another Cinco de Mayo. The world—and your loved ones—deserve sacred space for joy and commemoration.