Dia De Muertos/Day of the Dead

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Dia De Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday honoring the dead on Nov.2. Celebration begins on Nov. 1 with Dia de Muertos Chiquitos (Day of the Little Dead).

These celebrations/rituals coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. It is a joyous occasion that celebrates the memory of departed loved ones and ancestors. It is not a time of mourning but a time to celebrate and reflect on the continuity of life.

It is believed that on these days the souls of the dead return to visit the living. Dia de Muertos is celebrated in South American countries and in the United States where there are large Hispanic populations. Tucson holds an annual event.

The origin of Dia de Muertos dates back before the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The indigenous people of Mexico including the cultures of the Toltecs, Maya, Mexicas, Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec all participated in similar rituals and celebrations presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead).

It is believed the origin of the holiday may have been over 3,000 years ago beginning with the Olmec people. After the Spanish conquest, there was a strong effort to convert the natives to Catholicism.

The indigenous people were reluctant to accept the new religion resulting in a blending of old customs with the new religion.

On Nov. 2, 2012, my wife and I were lucky enough to be in Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) Sonora Mexico and were able to join in on the local Dia de Muertos celebration.

A large group of townspeople celebrated the holiday with music, food and dance. There was also a contest to see which artist could build the best altar honoring those that have passed on.

An altar of the dead is a key element of the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead. A platform is built and decorated in honor of a deceased relative or even a favorite person from history, the arts, entertainers, etc.

In Rocky Point, altars were built for Pancho Villa, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, the Railroad Workers of Mexico and even a Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

The platform is decorated with colored paper, flowers with marigolds being traditional, sweets, favorite foods or drink of the deceased. Pan de Muerto (the bread of the dead) is sweet bread specifically made for Day of the Dead.

The top of the bread is decorated to look like bones. Skulls and skeletal figures symbolically represent the dead playfully mimicking the living. Personal items related to the deceased and photos are added as well as religious items including crosses and rosaries, candles, sugar skulls, favorite music, tobacco, tequila and anything that could be identified with the deceased.

The traditional incense copal was also burned as an offering. There are many other traditions that go along with the holiday and symbolism that is involved in making the altars that are not mentioned here.

We also joined a procession from the cultural center to the port docks, which were a few hundred yards away. The people walked in a large group, many of them carrying flowers, torches and lighted candles. A small brass band and two women carrying a flower wreath led the procession to the waters edge.

There people placed the wreath, floating candles and flowers on the water as an offering to those fishermen and sailors that had lost their lives at sea. The procession then returned to the center where everyone enjoyed the music, food, and danced into the night.

An elderly man told my wife through a translator that he had been a fisherman in Puerto Penasco for 45 years. He had lost a brother at sea and knew others who had perished in storms and boat accidents in the ocean.

He told her that because these men’s bodies were never found, family and friends had no graves to visit and decorate, so the offerings were made to the Sea of Cortez where their bodies lie.

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