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Posted by on Nov 1, 2012 in Blog, Road Trip USA, Travel |

Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead)

Heather, Marisol and I joined a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) parade snaking its way through the streets of Petaluma, California. Up until that point, I had only a vague notion of what this holiday entailed. I learned that it is a special time for families and friends to gather on November 1 and 2 to remember loved ones who have died. The roots of the celebration go back to indigenous peoples living in the country now known as Mexico. Its modern day variations are a mix of Mexican, Catholic, and regional beliefs and practices. Today people from all over the world celebrate Day of the Dead. Often, families visit the grave sites of their loved ones and may even stay overnight. It is common to build an alter and decorate it with flowers, butterflies, favorite foods of the deceased, toys for children, sugar skulls, and religious paraphernalia such as crosses and candles. For most, the Day of the Dead is not viewed as a sad time but a day to remember fondly the memories, personality, and stories shared with their loved ones.

I find the Day of the Dead intriguing for several reasons. First, I think it is fair to say that many people in the United States (and other cultures with major Protestant and European influences) tend to view death as something to be avoided. It is almost as if we close our eyes and pretend that if we can’t see death, death can’t see us. We do not have holidays to explore the meaning of life and death in the family or community. Conversation on death is often awkward, somber, and only allowed in the recent aftermath of a funeral. Our news sensationalizes death and pop culture supports the idea of death as something infinitely grotesque and ideally overcome. So, it was refreshing to be a part of a festival entirely dedicated to looking at death in a more forthright way, which is to say, embrace the fact that death is as much a part of life as…well, life!

Secondly, the Day of the Dead is visually very interesting. The costumes, sugar skulls, cut paper, and other ofrendas (offerings) are colorful with bold shapes, lines, and patterns. The motif of skulls and skeletons involved in everyday activities challenges our common conceptions about life and death and adds humor to what is often a somber subject. Not to mention there is typically food, dancing, art, and music! I wonder if Tim Burton derived inspiration from the visual imagery presented through Day of the Dead iconography?

A Day of the Dead alter with ofrendas in Petaluma, California.

Finally, the Day of the Dead is a fascinating example to me of how people create meaning and incorporate old traditions into new ones. Wikipedia gives the casual scholar an interesting overview of this phenomena. Over a period of thousands of years, Aztec and Mayan traditions melded into Roman Catholic and Mexican beliefs and practices, which were then fashioned into new celebrations and observed differently by various cultures around the world! While visiting an exhibit on the Day of the Dead in Oakland, California, for example, I noticed that the community there used this holiday as a way to show their history and continue dialogue around issues of violence and oppression. In essence, the holiday creates a space for communities to talk about important issues of the past, present, and future.

In celebration of the Day of the Dead– eat, drink, dance, and remember those who have gone before you.

A Day of the Dead memorial in Oakland, California.