Friday, November 1st is the first day of El Dia De Los Muertos—a Mexican holiday honoring the dead and celebrating their souls yearly visit to Earth. Though it’s called “The Day of the Dead,” the holiday actually lasts two days: the first day honors children and the second day is for adults.
On Monday, members of WMU’s Division of Multicultural Affairs and Department of Spanish were busy setting up an altar at Waldo Library honoring Oscar Jerome Hijuelos a Cuban-American novelist who
recently passed away. You can see the altar and other Dia de los Muertos decorations on the 3rd floor of Waldo Library at WMU until 5pm on November 1st.
Most altars help to celebrate the life of a deceased relative with pictures of them and samples of their favorite foods. Mike Ramirez is the assistant director of Multicultural Affairs and also hosts WMUK’s show Alma Latina. He says there are a few other things you’ll see on almost every altar: incense to lure the soul, a cross of salt to purify the soul, candles to guide the soul back when they wish to return, and a glass of water to refresh the soul after its long journey.
The Department of Spanish also made a floor mural of the Aztec god of rain. It's made of beans, corn, and chilies. Ramirez says El Dia De Los Muertos takes its roots from the Aztecs as well as Catholic Europeans.
“There was a holiday prior to the Spanish coming to America,” says Ramirez. “They had a big festival. They had masks…put masks and danced. And that’s where all these masks come from. And they had this holiday. The Spanish came in and it coincided with All Saints Day. So that’s how El Dia De Los Muertos, at least in Mexico, got started.”
Though many Mexicans might clean relatives’ grave sites or make sugar skulls and Day of the Dead bread to celebrate, celebrations are different depending on where you live in Mexico. Leticia Espinoza and Carlos Bautista Monroy are graduate assistants in the Department of Spanish. Both of them grew up in Mexico. Monroy says in the city of Oaxaca in the south, the streets are lined with decorations and everyone comes out to party.
“’Do you want to go to the cemetery in…we have a new cemetery, so do you want to go to the general cemetery or do you want to go to the cemetery in Hohoe? Because they have parties at night with music, pan de muerto—which is a typical bread, and hot chocolate,” Monroy says. “And then it’s like a social gathering.”
Espinoza grew up in Ciudad Juarez near the New Mexico border. She says there it was more of a school thing.
“We would write comical poems regarding somebody’s death. And they’re called Calaveras or Calaveritas which is ‘skull’—that’s what it means—or ‘little skulls,’” Espinoza says. “And we will give to a friend or we would give it to our teacher and they would post it. And then we would do an altar or small altar at the school.”
Espinoza made two altars this year, one for her uncle and one for her brother. Monroy says his grandma does an altar for his grandfather every year.
“She talks to the altar like if she was talking to my grandfather like if he were there,” says Monroy. “Like saying ‘And do you remember when you told me this and when you did that?’”
To some, the Day of the Dead might sound a little creepy. But Espinoza says when you think of death as less of an end, it’s easier to understand.
“Death is a natural part of life. Not that we’re not scared of it, not that we despise it, or we don’t acknowledge it, or that we do not get hurt by it,” says Espinoza. “We’re not remembering that they died. We’re celebrating that they keep on going.”
Mike Ramirez says El Dia De Los Muertos is here to stay in the U.S.
“Every major library in the United States now has some form of celebrations for Day of the Dead. Every major museum in the United States has that now. And I attribute it to basically the size, change of demographics,” Ramirez says. “The Mexican community living in the United States had brought all their customs and you know, just to the United States.”