One of the most meaningful yearly celebrations in Mexico, in fact throughout Latin America, is Día de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead"), celebrated for nearly a week at the end of October and the beginning of November. This elaborate celebration, dedicated to the cult of the dead (also referred to as Todos Santos—"All Saints' Day"), combines pre-Hispanic rituals and beliefs with Catholic practices and symbols. The central idea is that during this period of public and private rituals, the living and dead family members and friends are joined together in an atmosphere of communion and spiritual regeneration.
Important elements of Day of the Dead festivities in Central Mexico were practiced by Aztecs and have become integrated into the Catholic traditions of Mexico and other parts of Latin America. This same pattern of images of the dead, altar, food offerings, incense, and communion is carried out today. It is important to note that the rituals, symbols, and elaborate decorations of home altars and cemeteries differ somewhat according to region. However, all Day of the Dead celebrations focus on a spiritual covenant between the human community and supernatural entities of deceased family members, friends, or saints. What is outstanding in all cases is the belief that what happens during one's life here on this earth is dependent, in part, on treating the dead well. People believe that if the dead are not venerated, nurtured, and remembered in the proper manner, their own economic security, family stability, and health will be in jeopardy. Therefore, careful and generous preparations are carried out.
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Prominent in the decorations of family and cemetery altars are marigold flowers, or zempoalxochitl (a Nahuatl word meaning "twenty-flower"). This sense of preparation for the Day of the Dead intensifies at the start of October, when the people set out the necessary cash and other goods to be used in the generous decorations of altars and tombs, and at the ceremonial meals for the dead and the living. Journeys are made to local and regional markets, sometimes covering several hundred miles, so that the correct foods and decorations can be purchased in time for the sacred week.
Most important are preparations of special foods for the dead. These include baked breads, candied fruit, skulls made of sugar, and human figurines made of pumpkin seeds, as well as apple, pear, and quince preserves. Papier-mâché images of various kinds are purchased or made to be used in the decorations of the altars and the graves. The last and most crucial items to be picked or purchased are the zempoalxochitl flowers. Since these flowers will last only four days, they are placed on altars and tombs and as pathways between the cemeteries and the homes on the day before the Day of the Dead begins.
Day of the Dead altars can appear in public plazas, in schools, and even in competitions, but the most important altar appears in the individual household. This altar becomes a sacred precinct or a ceremonial center within the home made up of at least ten kinds of objects—breads, sweets, cooked dishes, delicacies, fruits and vegetables, liquors and liquids, flowers and plants, clothing, adornments, and (perhaps most important) pictures, images, and statues. These pictures and statues are usually placed in a retablo (a structure forming the back of the altar), where images of the Virgin, Christ, the cross, and saints watch over the ofrenda, or offering to the dead. This offering takes the shape of a feast for the spirits of the dead, who will return and be nourished on specific nights during the Day of the Dead. Cooked dishes, liquids, finger foods, loaves of pan de muertos (bread of the dead), candied fruits, tamales, bananas, and oranges constitute the bulk of the offering. The most impressive objects of the ofrenda are crystallized sugar skulls of different sizes and with various kinds of decorations. These skulls represent the dead infants, children, and adults being honored that year.
Currently, there is a resurgence of these practices in Mexico and in Mexican American communities. In the United States, Mexican Americans have increasingly used Day of the Dead rituals to focus attention on socioeconomic issues. Grand public altars to honor the dead, elaborate decoration of graves and dramatic rituals attract public audiences and media coverage, creating a medium for communicating political messages to the living via commemoration of the dead, whose causes of death, such as drugs and violence, are highlighted.
-Adapted from Daily Life of the Aztecs (1998) by Scott Sessions and David Carrasco
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