The Latin American tradition of “el Dia de Los Muertos,” has crossed over to the U.S. as Day of the Dead (DoD) Celebrations are in more cities and cemeteries than ever before.
One can find DoD items at Williams-Sonoma, Cost Plus World Market, Target, Michael’s, and several other stores. The day has been commercialized and is now part of big marketing just like Halloween and other holidays.
I have mixed feelings about all that and hope the tradition doesn’t get lost through merchandising. I don’t want people to think that DoD is Mexican Halloween because it isn’t.
You might wonder what’s up with Mexican culture and death. And how did the celebration come to the U.S?
This is a story as old as immigration and ancestral traditions.
In the 1970’s Latino activists and artists in the United States began expanding “Day of the Dead” north of the border with celebrations of performance art, Aztec dance, art exhibits, and other public expressions, namely the construction of the altar.
This tradition, embraced by the mainstream, builds community, gives awareness for other traditions, and helps maintain ancestral and cultural identity.
There are several icons which constitute a Day of the Dead remembrance.
Recently, museums across the nation have begun to embrace this tradition as a means of engaging more diverse audiences and highlighting how Latin Americans view death, in contrast to Anglo-Saxons.
My county museum has been celebrating Day of the Dead for several years. This year, I and several others are building an altar to the Mexican and Mexican American film stars of the past 100 years, as a precursor to a film festival we’re hosting next year.
First we had to fold and cut a lot of colorful crepe paper to decorate the three levels of the altar. I’m a craft klutz, but with some individual help, I was able to construct a few papeles.
Some handiwork from my friends:
As you can see, just building the altar brings a group together.
Over the next few days, we’ll gather the elements needed to symbolize the four elements: wind, water, earth, and fire. Bunches of cempasuchil (marigolds), photographs, jarros (earthenware jugs or cups), candles, salt, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), sugar skulls and a few other objects.
Here’s a close-up view of a small altar.
Expand your horizons and visit a Day of the Dead celebration in your area.