Día de Muertos

On Wednesday evening November 2nd, I led the first ever Día de Muertos celebration at Ertegun House. In my small presentation, my aim was to introduce Ertegun scholars and friends to the components of this tradition and explain the meaning behind every object that is placed in the ofrenda, or altar. At the end, I also wanted to include everyone in the celebration and invited anyone comfortable in doing so to bring a photograph of memento of a loved one who had passed away to place it in the ofrenda.

In México, we conceive death as an extension of life beyond this earthly realm. This afterlife is named Mictlán, the underworld of the Mexica cosmogony, which was the indigenous population that dominated most of Mexico before the Spanish conquest. Our last breaths mark the beginning of the journey into Mictlán, one we don’t walk alone, but with the help from a Xoloescuincle, a small brown hairless dog. Mictlán is neither heaven nor hell; it’s home for our dead, our muertos.

During November 2nd, we usually visit our loved ones in their final resting places, we bring food and music, and make a picnic out of the trip, as if sharing another meal with our muertos. At home, we build the altar, or ofrenda, in response to the belief that during the night between November 1st and 2nd, our muertos travel from Mictlán and into the world of the living to visit their loved ones and enjoy some earthly delights.

The cempasúchil, or marigolds, are used to create patterns and walkways from our front doors to the ofrendas, guiding our muertos into our home. Candles also help guide the path to and from the world of the dead, usually arranged so that each candle represents one of our muertos. Papel picado are intricately cut paper banners, hung or placed in the ofrenda. They represent the wind and the fragility of life. Salt is for cleansing the souls of our muertos and is usually placed in the shape of a cross to ward off evil spirits, a practice we owe to the syncretism of our indigenous and Catholic beliefs. Water and incense signify purification. Pan de Muerto (or Bread of the Dead) is a delicious pan dulce made specifically for this holiday. The round shape represents the cyclical nature of life and death, and the bread itself is often decorated with pieces of dough that represent crossed bones and skulls. Calaveritas (or Sugar Skulls), are candy decorated with bright colors, names, and even the likenesses of the deceased. They symbolize the playful and joyous approach to death in Mexican culture.

The last components of the ofrenda are those that make it our own. Placing photographs, belongings, and favorite foods of the departed on the ofrenda allows for a personal and intimate connection with our muertos. We also believe that the journey to and from Mictlán is tiresome, so our muertos will want food and water before going back, which is why we offer them whatever they enjoyed during their lifetime.

During the event, I also shared some interesting tidbits about Mexican pop culture, including my similarities with renowned film director and famously adored Mexican export Guillermo del Toro. In 2014, during the press tour for his film based on Día de Muertos lore, The Book of Life, he said, “In Mexican culture, we're genetically engineered to not have the contemplation of death as a tragic end but a continuation — as a companion of life”. Later, backstage at the 2018 Academy Awards when his film The Shape of Water swept important categories like Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, a reporter from China’s Xinhua News Agency asked him about balancing the darkness and terror in his often monster-filled films with “the joyful and loving person” that he is. His response was, simply, “I’m Mexican”. Now, most of you know that I also encounter monstrosity in my work, and even though it is really hard work dealing with such subject matters, I agree with him as there is something uniquely Mexican about the way I approach death and darkness.

For the event, I also did my makeup to represent La Catrina, or posh skeleton lady, a popular figure in Mexican iconography first sketched by celebrated artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Her likeness, aside from eerily stylish, is supposed to be a satire of garbanceros, a sector of society during the beginning of the twentieth century that pretended to be high-society Europeans, denying their race, heritage, and culture. La Catrina is thus a denunciation of the classism of Mexican society that undervalued our traditions in their aspiration for a higher social status. Posada accompanied the original sketch with the phrase, “La muerte es democrática, ya que, a fin de cuentas, güera, morena, rica o pobre, toda la gente acaba siendo calavera”, which translates to, “Death is democratic, given that, at the end of the day, whether white or dark, rich or poor, all people end up being skeletons”. Over time, and with influence from other popular Mexican artists, most notably Diego Rivera, la Catrina became a symbol of Día de Muertos.

After I finished my presentation, several scholars and invited guests shared with the group stories about their loved ones and their favorite memories with them. I have to say I was very happy to see that people were comfortable with sharing such deeply personal things. I was aware that this kind of celebration can feel pretty disconcerting to other people from cultures where grieving and mourning are uniquely sorrowful experiences. Even across cultural perceptions of death, we were able to share very touching stories and remember our loved ones, even if they’re not with us anymore. I am very grateful to everyone that attended the event and celebrated what was my first Día de Muertos away from home.

Veronica Mondragon Paredes