El Día de los Muertos –Day of the Dead– is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 2. It is a day for people to remember friends and family members who have passed away. This day is very important in Mexican culture, much so that it is a national bank holiday.
This year, I got to celebrate my Día de los Muertos in a very different way than I used to growing up in Mexico. Although a little early, I celebrated last weekend at Mexic-Arte‘s Viva la Vida festival, where I got to play with the mariachi. Although the event was great, very lively and a huge success, it made me miss the old days when my school in Mexico celebrated in the most traditional way there is.
In Mexico, people build special altars dedicated to a loved one who has died. Schools even have contests to build the most beautiful and meaningful altars! When I was in secundaria –sort of the equivalent of high school in the U.S.– my school won first place building an altar dedicated to a very well-known Mexican character nicknamed “Piporro .” Born Eulalio González, he was a very charismatic actor, singer and songwriter. A Día de los Muertos altar is usually made up of seven different levels. These seven levels represent the stages the soul has to go through to achieve full peace. Each level will be filled with different foods and artifacts that characterize the traditional altar, as well as those that represent the dead to whom it is being rendered tribute.
Traditional Día de los Muertos foods to place on an altar include calaberitas de azúcar, or sugar skulls, which are exactly that: skulls made of sugar. Pan de muerto –bread of dead– is another traditional altar de muertos food. Tequila, mezcal and atole are drinks most commonly placed on adult altars. Dead children are brought toys instead. Personal objects of the dead are included in the tribute as well, such as clothes and objects that represent their career or life. The typical flowers used for altars are flores de cempasúchil, which give the altar life and beauty. Tissue paper decorations, better known as papel picado, are used to bring color to the altar, as well as candles. At the very top level there will be a picture of the dead, and above that a huge arch made of flowers that represents the door to a peaceful state for the soul of the dead.
Since public schools in Mexico have very few resources, these beautiful and traditional art pieces were put together with the help of students, teachers and parents. Each classroom was assigned something different to bring for the altar, and parents would come in to help set up the majestic altar. When the altar was finished, all students would get to visit with their own group. I remember walking past our winning altar, admiring the beauty of every single object in it with much respect, as we were supposed to. The dim room, the herbal smells and the colorful decorations of the altar filled the room with an aura of peace.
Although I don’t get to celebrate in such a traditional way anymore, I am very happy to see the appreciation that cities like Austin give to Mexican traditions. El Día de los Muertos brings joy, rather than sadness, and to me, it revives beautiful memories that will forever remain.
(A short animated film about a girl who travels to the land of the dead)