El Dia de los Muertos
The Day of the Dead
by Jo E. Pinto
Okay, I’ll admit it. Day of the Dead–El Dia de Los Muertos in Spanish–sounds creepy. Like, third-rate horror movie creepy. And the fact that it happens right after Halloween doesn’t help one bit.
But actually, there’s nothing creepy about it at all. So what is it anyway, you might be asking?
Day of the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos, is a bright, colorful holiday that has been celebrated annually in the central and southern regions of Mexico for over three thousand years. More recently, it has been brought to parts of the southwestern United States and other areas of the Spanish-speaking world. On November first and second, indigenous people honor the spirits of their deceased ancestors with singing and dancing, parades, and other special offerings of life-affirming joy. Children and adults alike are reminded that life is brief and must be cherished and that death is not to be feared.
The fun began with the Aztecs and the Toltecs, who believed mourning the dead was disrespectful. In these pre-Columbian cultures, death was a natural part of the long arc of life, not an end at all. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive and active in spirit and memory. During Dia Los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.
Ofrendas are altars built to welcome the spirits of deceased ancestors back to the realm of the living. They usually hold foods the people enjoyed during their earthly lives, water to quench the thirst from the journey back, family photos, and candles to light the path into life. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altars, and marigold petals are often strewn from the altars all the way to the cemeteries to guide wandering souls from their place of rest and back again. Salt, the spice of life, is sprinkled liberally on and around the ofrendas. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altars.
Skulls and Snacks
Mexican elders council people not to weep for their departed loved ones because tears make the road to the next life slippery. Originally introduced by 17th-century Italian missionaries, sugar skulls–delicate meringue-like skulls molded from sugar, water, and egg whites–are often elaborately decorated to look like departed ancestors.
One traditional food is pan de muerto (bread of the dead), or pan dulce, (sweet bread), which is a typical sweet bread that features anise seeds and bone- and skull-shaped decorations made of dough. The bones are often arranged in a circle to denote the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops represent sorrow. Some families place the favorite meals of their ancestors on the altar. Drinks include pulque, a sweet fermented beverage made from agave sap, atole, a thick, warm porridge made from corn flower, with unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla added; and hot chocolate.
To make this beautiful paper craft, artisans stack colored tissue paper in dozens of layers, then perforate the layers with hammer and chisel points. Although not used exclusively in Dia de los Muertos, papel picado plays an important role in the holiday. Draped around altars and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.
In these satirical poems, authors write about living people as if they have died or as if death refuses to claim them. Sometimes the poems are complimentary, but more often, they take a teasing attitude instead.
In the early 20th century, Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada created an etching to accompany a literary calavera. Posada dressed his personification of death in fancy French garb and called it Calavera Garbancera, intending it as social commentary on Mexican society’s emulation of European sophistication. “Todos somos calaveras,” a quote commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath our outward clothes and skin and hair, we are all the same.
Then, in 1947, artist Diego Rivera featured Posada’s stylized skeleton in his masterpiece mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Posada’s skeletal bust was dressed in a large feminine hat, and Rivera made his female and named her Catrina, slang for “the rich.” Today, the calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is the Day of the Dead’s most well-known symbol. Often women dress up in elaborate skeleton costumes, complete with brightly colored skirts fringed with shells and bells intended to draw the eyes and ears.
So, far from a gloomy event, El Dia de los Muertos is a lively holiday full of sights, sounds, foods, and interesting traditions to tempt the living. The main message of The Day of the Dead, that life is fleeting and death is a natural transition to be embraced rather than an end point of dread, is one we might all do well to remember.
“The Bright Side of Darkness” Is an award-winning novel,
Available in Kindle, audio, and paperback formats.
About the author…
E. Pinto is a magnet for underdogs! Early in her married life, her home became a hangout for troubled neighborhood kids. This experience lit the flame for her first novel, The Bright Side of Darkness.
Pinto’s Spanish-American roots grow deep in the Rocky Mountains, dating back six generations. J. E. Pinto lives with her family in Colorado where she works as a writer and also proofreads textbooks and audio books. One of her favorite pastimes is taking a nature walk with her service dog.
The Bright Side of Darkness won a first place Indie Book Award for “First Novel over Eighty Thousand Words,” as well as First Place for “Inspirational Fiction.” The novel also won several awards from the Colorado Independent Publishers Association: First Place for “Inspirational Fiction,” Second Place for “Audio Book,” and First Place for “Literary and Contemporary Fiction.
Rick Myers, an orphan without much faith in the future, and Daisy Bettencourt, a blind girl who is running from an alcoholic father and a set of overprotective foster parents, cross paths at a high school baseball game and make their way together. Daisy becomes the bright spot in Rick’s universe as he and his four lifelong friends–Tim, Mark, and the twins–battle the forces of poverty and hopelessness. Mark’s grandma dies of heart failure, and Tim’s stepdad is arrested on felony child abuse charges, leaving them, like Rick and Daisy, with no authority figures in their lives.
Rick and Daisy are trailed by a fat man in a battered green jeep who makes Rick more and more uneasy as the weeks pass. Then, just when Rick discovers an interest in the culinary field and decides to complete his education, the bottom drops out of his world.
There’s nothing a damn bit bright about sunshine when you’re seventeen and you see it from the wrong side of a jail cell window.
It isn’t that I’m moping for my lost freedom or anything. I wouldn’t give a half a crap for my life anymore now that the crew is scattered to the four winds, and all I have left of Daisy is her parting note in the waistband of my jeans and a wilted dandelion dangling between my fingers. But it seems to me that the Man Upstairs could have marked my downfall with a terrific thunderstorm or at least a few nasty black clouds out of the west.
When there’s a war or a funeral or some other sad thing going on in the movies, the sky usually turns dark and ugly, and the rain pours down in buckets. The longer I stare at the square of sunlight streaming through the tiny window of my cell and stealing across the floor, the lonelier I feel. August 27, 1986, is slipping by the same as every other hot, heavy day, and I’m the only one in the world who knows that nothing will ever be all right again.
It hasn’t always been this way. I ought to have known better than to believe I could reach out and snag a piece of paradise, but for a little while I had it on my fingertips. Breaks are hard to come by for kids from the projects, though, and sure enough, all I ended up with at the last second was empty hands.
I’m doing my level best to hold off a flood of memories, but my mind keeps drifting back to the sweltering summer evening when the chain of events began that shattered my world into a zillion pieces. First thing tomorrow morning, some juvenile court judge will decide if my life is worth rebuilding. Maybe he’ll have better luck with my future than I did with my past.
If you would like to contact Author Jo E Pinto please feel free to e-mail:
To see her guest blog posts, please check out:
Please see her on her Facebook page: