Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
- History of the Ritual
- Welcoming Home the Dead
- Celebrating the Day of the Dead Outside of Mexico
- Further Reading
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), or Todos Santos (All Saints) as it is sometimes called, is an annual celebration of life and death observed throughout Greater Mexico during which time celebrants welcome home the spirits of their deceased loved ones with ofrendas (offerings) of food, drink, and other cherished personal items and then commune with them at their grave sites. The Day of the Dead marks the one time during the year when the dead may return, if only for a few hours, to visit their loved ones and to enjoy the pleasures they had known in life. Traditionally, festivities are held between the evening of October 31st and November 2nd but some communities begin parts of the celebration as early as October 27th. Throughout Mexico, el Día de los Muertos is primarily a private, family-based ritual that culminates in a public, community celebration. The practice of observing el Día de los Muertos has also found a home in the United States where festivities are largely public and represent an opportunity for community building and cultural affirmation for urban Chicanos and Latinos.
History of the Ritual
Like most Mexican traditions and religious practices, el Día de los Muertos is a syncretic ritual with elements borrowed from both Spanish Catholicism and pre-Columbian religious beliefs. The Day of the Dead comes out of the Indigenous belief in three deaths: the first death is the physical death of the body; the second death, the death of the spirit, comes with the spirit's return to mother earth and ascent to the sun; and the third death is the death that Indigenous peoples truly feared—the death of the soul that occurs after there is no one left alive to remember or welcome the soul home. El Día de los Muertos represents a means through which to spare ancestors from this third death.
El Día de los Muertos has been observed throughout Mexico for almost 3,000 years. The Florentine Codex contains records of two Aztec feast days: Miccailhuitontli and Miccailhuitl, which can be translated as “Feast of the Little Dead Ones” and “Feast of the Adult Dead.” Together, these feasts were known as Tlaxochimaco (The Offering of the Flowers) or Xocotl uetzi (Fruit Falls)—festivals which were Page 404 | Top of Articleheld in the ninth and tenth months of the Aztec year. When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they moved these feast days to coincide with the Catholic observance of All Souls' Day and All Saints' Day in an attempt to convert the Indigenous population to Catholicism.
As a result, All Souls' Day and All Saints' Day merged with the harvest rites of Mictlantecuhtli into the syncretic rituals we are familiar with today. The Folk Catholic traditions of bringing food offerings to the dead meshed well with the Indigenous practice of offering grave-goods for the departed's use in the afterlife. The Catholic belief in heaven and hell added a new dimension to the Aztec belief in Mictlán, an afterlife that was determined by how an individual had died, not by how he or she had lived.
Welcoming Home the Dead
El Día de los Muertos is the most visibly celebrated festival of the year in Mexico. This is particularly true of Mexico's rural areas where preparations for the Day of the Dead may be carried out throughout the year but explode with activity in the days preceding the feast. Rural markets are at their most impressive in the days before el Día de los Muertos, and brightly colored flowers, candies, and paper goods are seemingly everywhere.
Rural areas are also more likely to begin practicing Día de los Muertos rituals earlier than revelers in urban settings who might only recognize November 1st and 2nd as days of celebration. In these communities, the Days of the Dead begin on October 27th, when the hungry and thirsty souls of those without families or friends are welcomed with water hung from vessels outside of people's homes and crusts of bread. These souls might alternately be welcomed into a village's church, where a single offering provided by the community awaits their return.
The next night, October 28th, marks the time when those souls who died violently are cautiously welcomed back. Many consider these souls malevolent spirits who are unable to find peace in their afterlife and fear these unfortunate spirits. These fears stem from Aztec beliefs that the quality of our afterlives is dictated by the manner in which we die, not the manner in which we lived. For this reason, those souls who died by accident, murder, or other violent means are offered sustenance at a safe distance. Food and water are placed outside of the home for returning spirits to find, but their souls are not welcomed back into the home out of a fear that they may not leave or cause problems for the living while they visit.
On October 30th, the souls of those children who died before being baptized and who therefore dwell in limbo are welcomed home for a few hours. The next night, the souls of baptized children are allowed to return and are welcomed back into their homes. As with the other souls who have returned, the time shared with them is fleeting, and they must return to their afterlife by the following afternoon.
The late afternoon of November 1st brings with it the beginning of an impressive celebration. Church bells ring all afternoon to welcome the souls of the adults. The Faithful Dead, as they are sometimes called, arrive throughout the evening and join their families at the home altar where they find ofrendas, or offerings, laid out Page 405 | Top of Articlein their honor. Families first acknowledge the most recently deceased loved one before welcoming home their other ancestors.
Public and Private Rituals
Traditionally, el Día de los Muertos is primarily celebrated privately in the home with family and close friends. The feast days mark a time of family reunion both for the living and the dead. This is particularly true in some areas in Mexico where it is customary for family members to travel to the homes of relatives who have lost loved ones within the last year to pay their respects in a ritual that resembles a Catholic wake. Family members gather around the ofrenda and drink atole, a hot drink made with cornmeal and cinnamon that is sometimes flavored with fruit or chocolate, and sit in quiet reflection. The ritual culminates at sundown, when family members travel to the cemetery with food and drink to commune with the dead at their gravesites. By now, the graves will have been cleaned and tended to by the women in the family and the men will have repainted the headstones or tombs in bright colors and made any necessary repairs.
When families move to the cemetery on the last night of the Days of the Dead, it will be for a community celebration. Celebrants bring food and potables in offering to the dead and to share with one another. The distribution of food amongst the living represents an important element of Day of the Dead rituals as it symbolically reaffirms community ties and social relationships.
At the cemetery, women will take their places graveside to pray for the departed while men socialize amongst one another. Candles will be lit to represent each departed soul. Mariachis, or other traveling musicians, might attend to play songs for the enjoyment of both the living and the dead.
On these nights it is also common to witness masked comparsas take place through village streets. Men in masks perform amusing skits in return for a few coins or a warm drink. These performers will, in the tradition of oral Calaveras, offer up some witty, but biting epitaph for the living members of a family in exchange for a small payment.
When night falls on the second day of November, the festivities will come to a close. The souls of the dead will return to their afterlife. The dead who linger will be hurried on their journey by masked “mummers,” whose job it is to frighten away the souls who dawdle in the world of the living.
Day of the Dead ofrendas, or offerings, have historically constituted the most private aspect of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Today, however, elaborately constructed ofrendas play a central role in public, community-oriented Day of the Dead celebrations. Depending on local traditions, the construction of the home ofrenda begins on either the 30th or 31st of October. The assembly of the ofrenda is a family activity in which every family member who is able participates.
The construction of the ofrenda is premised on the Indigenous Mexican belief that souls require nourishment—even after death. For this reason, families Page 406 | Top of Articleprovide food and drink to the souls of their dearly departed on the one night of the year during which they are able to return to commune with the living. Ofrendas are usually constructed on a table or platform that has been covered with a decorative cloth—either a crisp white cotton or an embroidered tablecloth—although more recently, the introduction of festively colored plastic sheeting has become increasingly popular even in rural settings. Sometimes levels will be fashioned out of empty boxes to form a pyramid shape and then covered with the tablecloth. The ofrenda is usually positioned as close to the family altar as possible as, like the permanent altar, it constitutes an important element of the family's spiritual practices.
Upon the ofrenda table, families will artfully arrange food, water, sweets, candles, flowers, and statues of saints or prayer cards. The specific items featured on the ofrenda will vary according to the gustos (likes or tastes) of the person to whom the offering is being made. The use of sugar skulls—skulls molded from granulated sugar and meringue powder, left to harden and then decorated with brightly colored icings and bits of colored tin foil and sequins—upon which the name of the deceased is printed has become increasingly popular for use in ofrendas. Should they be available, photographs of the deceased will occupy a position of prominence on the altar as will any mementos that held special meaning to the dead. Copal, a resin derived from plant sap and used as incense to cleanse the space of evil spirits, will then be burned to lead the souls of the dead back home. There, a woven mat laid in front of the ofrenda table awaits the returning souls so that they may rest after their long journey. Personal cleansing items such as soap, combs, razors, and toothbrushes are often placed next to the ofrenda alongside a washbasin, mirror, and towel so that the souls of the dead may “freshen up” when they return.
In some regions of Mexico, families will construct an arco (arch), which represents the universe, out of cane and place it above the ofrenda table. The arco is then decorated with some combination of flowers, various food items, and palm leaves. In Tzintzuntzán, Mexico, the arco is an elaborate structure that might be constructed in the form of an angel or a bird before being decorated with flowers and candied fruits. These costly ofrendas are usually reserved to honor the dead who have passed into spirit within the last year. Day of the Dead offerings are as unique as the people they are dedicated to, but some elements remain consistent across regions: the inclusion of food, water, candles, and the tissue paper garlands known as papel picado.
The Four Elements
Traditionally, the Día de los Muertos ofrenda contains four components symbolic of the four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Earth is represented in the ofrenda as a crop item—i.e., food. In many of Mexico's corn-based cultures (the Maya, the P’urhepecha, etc.), corn holds both spiritual and cultural significance. Corn harvested in October is used to make a variety of foods such as tamales and gorditas which are then offered up alongside moles, breads, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. In some regions, the tamales made for the Día de los Muertos ofrenda are Page 407 | Top of Articlewrapped to resemble a five-point star, a geometric shape symbolizing the Atomo Divino—the soul of the dead in its celestial afterlife.
The second element, air (or wind), is represented in ofrendas through the incorporation of papel picado—tissue paper squares cut to form pictures and elaborate designs. Papel picado, an Aztec art form that predates Spanish conquest, can be made at home by folding tissue paper and using small, sharp scissors to cut out the negative space in the design. However, more often than not, papel picado is created by skilled artisans who use a chisel (called fierritos) to cut through up to fifty sheets of tissue paper at once. Papel picado is used for a wide variety of holidays and celebrations throughout Mexico—the colors and designs changing according to the occasion. Papel picado made for the Day of the Dead typically features skulls and skeletons engaged in various activities, religious symbols, and images of offering tables. These brightly colored delicate tissue squares, which can resemble lace, are then strung together to form a banner and hung above and in front of the ofrenda platform so that they may flutter in the breeze.
One of the most well-known papel picado artists, Herminia Albarrán Romero, is the 2005 recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship in Folk and Traditional Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Albarrán Romero, who learned her craft at the knees of her mother and grandmother in Tlatlaya, Mexico, has exhibited her papel picado art in museums throughout the United States and is a frequent contributor as both an altarista (altar maker) and paper artisan to Day of the Dead workshops. Her recognition by the NEA and the various commissions she has received for her work are evidence of the impact that folk arts connected to el Día de los Muertos have had on U.S. culture.
The third and fourth elements, water and fire, are represented quite literally in ofrendas. Water is left on the offering table in decorative jugs so that the spirits may quench their thirst after their long journey home. Families that are more connected to the Catholic aspects of the Day of the Dead may choose to bring this element into their ofrendas by including a bowl of holy water—water blessed by a Catholic priest.
Fire is incorporated through the inclusion of lit candles. Tradition dictates that four candles should be lit to symbolize the four directions and that one candle be included on the ofrenda for each soul being remembered. An extra candle is typically included on the offering table in remembrance of forgotten souls. These candles represent hope and faith and are left to burn throughout the night so that no soul will be left in darkness. If possible, the candles burned for the purpose of inclusion in the ofrenda are purchased especially for the occasion and burned in new candleholders.
Aside from its role in representing one of the four basic elements of the ofrenda (i.e., earth), food plays a significant role in Day of the Dead rituals. Food is the means through which the living are able to maintain a relationship with the dead. The food offered as part of an ofrenda is imbued with spiritual meaning, and for this reason it cannot be consumed by the living until the souls have departed back Page 408 | Top of Articleto their afterlife. Mexicans do not believe that the dead actually consume the food offered to them. Rather, they understand the food as a sort of evidence of connection between the living and the dead and believe that the returning souls appreciate the effort put forth on their behalf.
El Día de los Muertos is also the only time of the year during which certain foods become available. One of these food items is a baked good known as Pan de Muertos or Bread for the Dead. The baking of this yeast bread begins before October 30th and is a task carried out by the men in a family or by a local baker. Though considered a sweetbread, Pan de Muertos is virtually unsweetened. Sugar is used to dust the tops of the bread, but none is used in the dough. Instead, Pan de Muertos is flavored with orange water, anise seeds, and nutmeg.
The most common shape of the bread is a round, flat bun with two strips of dough shaped like bones forming a cross over the top. However, different towns often offer regional variations on the classic shape. For instance, the bread can be formed in the shape of a person, in the form of a heart, or in the shape of an animal. Among the P’urhepecha, the bread is often formed in the likeness of a rabbit called aguani, which also represents a man.
A dazzling array of skeleton-themed sweets is also available during Day of the Dead festivities. Skulls, skeletons, and coffins are crafted out of sugar and chocolate and offered at home altars and given to friends and loved ones. In many ways, the food prepared for el Día de los Muertos takes on the function of maintaining community among the living. This is evident not only in the purchase of confections as gifts, but also in the practice of sharing the ofrenda food after the spirits have departed.
According to custom, food is brought to the cemeteries to nourish the departing souls as they leave on their long journey back to the afterlife. When the souls have left, the special foods prepared especially for the occasion are shared with family, friends, and neighbors as a sort of offering to the community. This practice is an integral part of maintaining community connections, particularly in rural areas.
Flores para los Muertos (Flowers for the Dead)
Flowers, which symbolize the brevity of life, are an essential element of the Day of the Dead ofrenda. Though many different flowers are used in Day of the Dead celebrations, one flower has become a national symbol for the festival: the marigold. Also called cempasúchil (the flower of 400 lives), k’etsikarhani, or cempoaxotchil, the marigold holds a revered place in pre-Columbian religious history. According to legend, cempasúchil, which comes from the Nahuatl words cemposalli, meaning “twenty,” and xochitl, or “flower,” making marigolds the “flower of twenty petals,” were miraculously gifted to the Nahua by Tonatiuh, their sun god, so that they might honor their dead. Today, the marigold continues to be featured prominently in all aspects of Day of the Dead rituals.
Marigolds are used in the construction of the floral arches, garlands, wreaths, crucifixes, and five-point stars that accompany ofrendas in many regions and in the decoration of gravesites and home altars. In addition to its decorative uses, the marigold serves a practical purpose in Day of the Dead rituals. Prized for their Page 409 | Top of Articlebright coloring and potent fragrance, marigolds are thought to attract the souls of the dead to the ofrendas prepared for them. Families will often scatter marigold petals forming a path from their front doors to the ofrenda waiting within the home. In smaller towns, families might even lay a floral path from the cemetery to their front doors to lead the dead home. In larger towns where this is not possible, a family might still scatter a path of marigold petals in the direction of the cemetery to ensure that the souls of the dead make their way safely to and from their final destinations. The petals of the marigold are also thought to possess cleansing properties, and families will often use them to form a cross on the floor in front of the ofrenda so that the souls may be cleansed of their sins and guilt when they tread upon it.
The use of other varieties of flowers in Día de los Muertos celebrations will vary regionally and according to which flowers are available locally. Some of the more commonly used flowers are Cockscomb, or Mano de León (lion's paw), a brilliantly hued magenta blossom, Flor de ánima (Flower of the Soul), a flower similar to the orchid, and various species of orchids. Notable among these orchids are a variety referred to as Joskua tsitsiki, or “starflower,” a purple orchid with white hues which represents the spirit of the deceased. The bloom's star shape references the spirit's conversion into a star after it returns to the sun. The Parakata tsitsiki or “butterfly” is a yellow orchid with brown hues which represents the human psyche, and the yellow color of the Tiringui tsitsiki, an orchid with distinctive markings, represents the golden color of the soul. These join the more common gladiolas and carnations in typical Day of the Dead celebrations.
Ofrendas for Children
The souls of dead children, or angelitos (little angels), are typically welcomed home on the evening of October 31st, but in some regions of Mexico, celebrants of el Día de los Muertos differentiate between the souls of children who died before being baptized and other children. In these communities, infants in limbo, as the unbaptized are thought to be, are believed to return on the 30th of October. Ofrendas set out for the souls of children are smaller and less lavish in scale than those created for adult souls. Offering tables are often smaller in scale and are sometimes decorated with miniature table settings and small portions of food. The exception to this will come in the case of offerings made to children who have died within the previous year, which can be quite lavish. For instance, in some parts of Mexico it is customary for the godparents of a recently deceased child to offer an arco, an elaborate arch, which may be made to resemble many forms but which is always covered in flowers, breads, fruits, and candies, to the parents of the deceased on October 31st. Tradition dictates that the parents will offer a meal in thanks for the offering or the arco and then bring the arch to the child's gravesite where it will remain until the end of the Day of the Dead feast days.
Offerings to children often include favorite or new toys, candies or other sweets, and milk. Depending on availability, junk food such as soda or commercially packaged candies and chips may be set out. Some families choose to purchase new clothing for their returning children.
Ofrendas for Adults
When the spirits of the deceased adults return on November 1st, no expense is spared to prepare the ofrendas for their arrival. If the soul being welcomed home has died within the last year, the ofrenda will be particularly lavish as el Día de los Muertos will likely represent the family's first opportunity for closure. Because ofrendas are made to cater to the tastes of the returning souls, offerings made to adult souls will contain elements not present in those constructed for children. Ofrendas for adults might feature an alcoholic beverage favored by the dead in life—a special tequila or a favorite beer. If the departed was a smoker, cigarettes or a favorite pipe may be laid out on his or her behalf. As with children, snacks enjoyed by the returning souls in life will be brought to the offering table. These offerings are made to remind the dead of the things they had loved in life. The spiritual needs of the returning souls are also attended to as family members will include statues of saints with whom the dead felt connected or of the Virgin in the ofrenda.
Skeletons have become synonymous with the Day of the Dead for those removed from Mexican rural settings. Rarely featured in the Día de los Muertos celebrations of small, rural towns, skeletons take center stage in urban Day of the Dead celebrations—particularly those in the United States. In urban Mexican communities, skeletons make their presence felt via festively decorated sugar skulls, paper cutouts in bakery shop windows, papier-mâché skulls and skeletons—both large and small, plastic and barro (red clay) toys and figurines, a dizzying assortment of candies and chocolate made in skeleton and skull molds, intricately crafted papel picado, and face-painted revelers.
These skeletons are not morbid in nature nor do they reflect a fascination with death as some might suggest. Rather, these whimsical skeletons are a means through which the living may poke fun at the foibles of human existence. These calacas remind us that death is not something to be feared or worshiped, but rather embraced as an inevitable part of life. The popularity of these skeleton figures is due in large part to the influence of José Guadalupe Posada's (1852–1913) now iconic images of skeletons in the afterlife.
Posada's artwork and mastery of the written calavera gained national prominence during Mexico's turbulent Porfiriato, the years during which Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915) ruled as President. Calaveras, the Spanish word for skulls, in this case refer to amusing, sometimes biting, epitaphs written for friends, loved ones, and public figures and circulated during Day of the Dead celebrations. Calaveras are sometimes written for the dead and read as part of the nocturnal festivities held in cemeteries but they are just as often composed for the living and either performed for the amusement of an audience or circulated via printed flyers or pamphlets. Posada endeared himself to the Mexican public by producing engraved images of decadent skeletons accompanied by witty calaveras that ridiculed the rich and those in political power. Posada's images worked to show that, in death, we are all equal regardless of the social class we occupied while living.
One of Posada's most famous images, “La Calavera Catrina,” a portrait of a skeleton attired in the finery of an upper-class woman, is one of the most widely recognized examples of this political work and has become an iconic symbol of Día de los Muertos celebrations both in Mexico and the United States. Indeed, Posada's ubiquitous Catrina has become synonymous with death itself. La Catrina's image graces everything from mouse pads and rubber stamps to T-shirts. The famous Dulcería La Catrina, a candy shop in Guanajuato, Mexico, uses Posada's Catrina as a store logo. Posada's skeletons have given death a recognizable face.
Posada's influence is evident in the work of the renowned Linares family. In tribute to Posada's work, Pedro Linares re-created Posada's engravings using his own three-dimensional papier-mâché and cartonería calavera figures. The Linares family (Pedro Linares [1906–1992]; Enrique Linares [b. 1933]; Felipe Linares [b. 1936]; Miguel Linares [b. 1946]) has, for over 100 years, worked in the artisan craft of papier-mâché and cartonería. Working with paper, cardboard, and wheat-flour paste, the men of the Linares family have created skeletons both small and grand in scale that have been internationally celebrated for their artistry. The Linares' calacas reside in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Disney World's Epcot Center, the Fowler Museum of Cultural History in Los Angeles, the British Museum in London, and in galleries all over the world.
Taking inspiration from Posada's practice of using calacas as a means to convey political messages or comment on current events, the Linares family has used their art to depict world events of both local and global significance such as the 1986 Mexico City earthquake and the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also like Posada, the Linares use calacas to mock both the living and the dead, creating skeletons in the images of corrupt politicians as a means of social critique. Though the Linares' work is now considered collectible art, the family began by creating ephemeral objects designed to be used during Day of the Dead celebrations and then discarded or burned afterward. That the Linares' work has reached the level of prominence that it has speaks to the influence and impact Mexico's Day of the Dead festivities have had on a global cultural stage.
Tourism promoted through state intervention has had a significant impact on the ways in which the Day of the Dead is celebrated in some parts of Mexico. The Day of the Dead's carnivalesque atmosphere—replete with whimsical skulls and skeletons—has proven to be an irresistible draw for tourists who flock to Mexico to marvel at the colorful celebration. The voyeuristic nature of the tourists' enjoyment of the feast day has inspired Mexican writer and journalist Carlos Monsiváis to comment on “the cameras [which] have come to outnumber the candles in the cemeteries”: “Kodak takes possession,” and “Mexico has sold its cult of death and the tourist's smile is anthropologically satiated” (Carmichael and Sayer 1991, 9).
In a study of the effects of tourism on Day of the Dead celebrations in the state of Michoacán—where the festival is called Noche de Muertos (The Night of the Page 412 | Top of ArticleDead), Stanley Brandes writes, “The impact has been to convert a relatively minor ritual event, in which a small proportion of the town participated and virtually no outsiders showed much interest, into one in which thousands of city people clog the streets with traffic, television cameras flood the cemetery with glaring lights, and the town becomes more or less a great stage prop for a ritual drama. In this drama native townspeople participate as actors but outsiders run the show” (2006, 71). Brandes reports that state intervention into tourism related to Day of the Dead activities in Michoacán began in 1971.
Prior to 1971, Noche de Muertos rituals consisted of a mass, the construction of home altars, a candlelight vigil in the cemetery (known as la velación), public offerings or ofrendas made to the dead and then shared with the community, and then culminated with a practice referred to as el doble—the slow ringing of church bells. This ringing of the bells—a service performed by local youth—is a practice that had been accompanied by community-sanctioned door-to-door begging (either for food or money) and a shared feast prepared and consumed by the youth (Brandes 2006). These simple, religiously grounded activities have changed significantly as a result of state intervention.
Today, Noche de Muertos has taken on the tone of a carnival and is referred to informally as la Feria de los Muertos (The Fair of the Dead). The Ministry of Tourism has introduced several cultural performances into the feast celebrations so that now the celebration of Noche de Muertos includes theatrical performances and exhibitions of regional dances which are put on primarily for the benefit of tourists from both within Mexico and abroad (Brandes 2006, 78–79). In addition to these new performed events, the introduction of craft competitions and open-air marketplaces with vendors selling everything from pottery to food has also come with the influx of middle-class tourists. For better or for worse, these changes have had the effect of commercializing what was once a deeply religious and spiritual celebration and have turned the Day of the Dead into a globally recognized symbol for Mexico and Mexican identity.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead Outside of Mexico
The Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout urban centers in the United States as part of a public display of cultural affirmation. Throughout the country, city streets come alive with processions featuring face-painted revelers dressed as skeletons and mariachis playing traditional Mexican music. Participants carry largescale papier-mâché skulls and skeletons—some of which can reach fifteen feet in height—and marigold-encrusted altars. Spectators are encouraged to attend these processions dressed in Day of the Dead costumes. Celebrations typically include altar-building contests in which altars are placed on public display and Day of the Dead workshops for both adults and children.
Though these types of celebrations are held all across the United States, some of the oldest, and most well known, are held in the Southwest. San Francisco's Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts and East Los Angeles's Self Help Graphics both Page 413 | Top of Articleorganize festivals that are considered major annual events in their respective cities. These festivals, which began as a way for Mexican and Mexican American communities to maintain positive connections to their cultural heritage, have become an opportunity to practice community activism. Day of the Dead altars are frequently constructed along themes that have an impact on the community such as police brutality, violence against women, and immigrant rights.
The growing popularity of Day of the Dead events in the United States has opened the door to commoditization of what was once a deeply spiritual religious practice. Processions are now held with corporate sponsorship, and many have critiqued the events as an opportunity for consumerism to run rampant as vendors have come to play an increasingly important role in the celebrations. The Day of the Dead's evolution from religious ritual to cultural spectacle is made glaringly evident in the annual celebration held at Los Angeles's Hollywood Forever Cemetery—purportedly the only cemetery in the country to open its gates to the Día de los Muertos festival. Here, for only $10, Hollywood hipsters are invited to take part in an “authentic” Day of the Dead celebration complete with Aztec dancers and an altar-building competition.
ALEXANDRA MENDOZA COVARRUBIAS
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