Every November 1st, Mexican and Mexican American communities across the United States celebrate a seemingly macabre festival to the dead. This is a time of skeletons, sugar skulls, brilliantly decorated altars, and bread decorated with cross bones. These items and celebrations have nothing to do with Halloween. Rather, Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, derives from the blending of Catholic and Aztec religious traditions. In recent years, the imagery and celebration of Day of the Dead has extended outside the confines of the household and entered the public domain. In particular, it is common for museums, college campuses, and community centers. In the past, altars were decorated to remember deceased family members. Today, altars are painstakingly crafted in honor of pop icons such as Selena, Cesar Chavez, or Frida Kahlo. These artistic displays have become potent emblems of Mexican and Mexican American cultural identity which are shared with the general public as a means to bridge not just the gap between living and dead, but also between insiders and outsiders.
The celebration coincides with the Catholic religious observations of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. Roman Catholics reserve these days to reflect on those that have gone before. Prayers and devotions are made in honor of the deceased. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in the early 16th century, Catholic priests were keen to abolish Aztec religion which was seen as demonic. As part of the process, Aztec temples were razed and Christian churches were built from the rubble. Aztec icons, books, and other religious paraphernalia were burnt and destroyed. Forced to convert to Catholicism, the Aztecs nevertheless continued to celebrate their old ways in secret. One way was to disguise Aztec festivals in Catholic raiment.
Thus, Día de los Muertos was born. Like many Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Aztecs did not believe in a hard boundary between the earthly and spiritual realms. Powerful shaman priests were able to penetrate the two realms at will and consult the dead on important matters. Much of Aztec artistic production incorporates skulls and images of death. Certainly after the arrival of Europeans, many Aztecs would perish from outright violence and disease.
Later in the colonial period, as Spanish and Indian cultures began to meld into the modern nation of Mexico, new traditions emerged including Día de los Muertos. What had originally been religious commemorations began to take on a more lighthearted nature. It was as if through mockery and consuming decorated sugar calaveras (sugar skulls) and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) one could, for at least a day, escape the grasping hand of death.