Tradition | Folklore | Holiday



Special to LATIN HORROR by Paola Tonini. Cover photo © Edwin Pagán.

Latin Horror More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

Many are fast to label it as “weird” – why – because it’s not their belief ?

FACTOID 1: IT’S NOT THE AS HALLOWEEN (click for details)
While Halloween is celebrated Oct. 31Día de los Muertos is celebrated right after, on Nov. 2. Many communities that celebrate Día de los Muertos also celebrate Halloween.
Día de los Muertos celebration organized by El Museo del Barrio, NYC. Photo © George Zavala.
Día de los Muertos celebration organized by El Museo del Barrio, NYC. Photo © George Zavala.
Día de los Muertos celebration organized by El Museo del Barrio, NYC. Photo © George Zavala.


Día de los Muertos originated in ancient Mesoamerica (Mexico and northern Central America) where indigenous groups, including Aztec, Maya and Toltec, had specific times when they commemorated their loved ones who had passed away. Certain months were dedicated to remembering the departed, based on whether the deceased was an adult or a child.

After the arrival of the Spanish, this ritual of commemorating the dead was intertwined with two Spanish holidays: All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 2). Día de los Muertos is often celebrated on Nov. 1 as a day to remember children who have passed away, and on Nov. 2 to honor adults.

Today, Día de los Muertos is celebrated mostly in Mexico and some parts of Central and South America. Recently it has become increasingly popular among Latino communities abroad, including in the United States.

The primary thing to remember is that El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is neither morbid nor gloomy; instead, it is a festive remembrance of the departed.

 Most recently, the 2017 multi-award winning film COCO (Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios), gave light to this wonderful Day Of The Dead tradition. Highlighting the concept of honoring our ancestors, not what many confused as “adoring” them. Truly a wonderful film, full of love that has demystified many misconceptions about this holiday to people from other cultures.

The belief is that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.


Ancient Mesoamericans believed that death was part of the journey of life. Rather than death ending life, they believed that new life came from death. This cycle is often associated with the cyclical nature of agriculture, whereby crops grow from the ground where the last crop lies buried.

Día de los Muertos is an opportunity to remember and celebrate the lives of departed loved ones. Like any other celebration, Día de los Muertos is filled with music and dancing. Some popular dances include La Danza de los Viejitos—the dance of the little old men—in which boys and young men dress as old men, walk around crouched over then suddenly jump up in an energetic dance. Another dance is La Danza de los Tecuanes—the dance of the jaguars—that depicts farm workers hunting a jaguar.


The ofrenda is often the most recognized symbol of Día de los Muertos. This temporary altar is a way for families to honor their loved ones and provide them what they need on their journey. They place down pictures of the deceased, along with items that belonged to them and objects that serve as a reminder of their lives.

Every ofrenda also includes the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners, represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread. Candles are often left in the form of a cross to represent the cardinal directions, so the spirits can find their way.

An elaborate altar set up on Día de los Muertos in remembrance of a loved one.


The cempasúchil, a type of marigold flower native to Mexico, is often placed on ofrendas and around graves. With their strong scent and vibrant color the petals are used to make a path that leads the spirits from the cemetery to their families’ homes.

Monarch butterflies play a role in Día de los Muertos because they are believed to hold the spirits of the departed. This belief stems from the fact that the first monarchs arrive in Mexico for the winter each fall on Nov. 1, which coincides with Día de los Muertos.

Calaveritas de azucar, or sugar skulls, along with toys, are left on the altars for children who have passed. The skull is used not as morbid symbol but rather as a whimsical reminder of the cyclicality of life, which is why they are brightly decorated.

Families set up Altars to welcome departed spirits home. They place their favorite drinks, food & toys. Pictures of the deceased are also placed here along with other Ofrendas (Offerings) such as personal belongings & just about anything they enjoyed in life! Some are very elaborate & can run up a big bill too!

Mexican families also make a trip to the cemeteries during Día de los Muertos to clean up the family member’s gravesites and decorate them as well. This day is not only celebrated in Mexico but also in Italy, Spain, South America and the Philippines—and all celebrate All Souls and All Saints Day on November 1st and 2nd as well.

I walked through the cemetery during Día de los Muertos, and thank Goodness I had no one to pay a visit!

But I must say it was something beautiful to see! Full of candles, flowers & people. Color all over, I mean you can’t even walk! Tradition to its fullest, wow what a unique way to honor & remember our loved ones who have departed. But have they really departed? I don’t think so…because we honor them & remember them with so much love.

Proud of my roots and to be Mexican.

Factoids courtesy: María Anderson/Smithsonian Latino Center’s Latino Virtual Museum

Paola Tonini
Paola Tonini is a professional and multi-talented actress and content producer. She is also a freelance sales talent with Telemundo 47 New York. She is known for her cheerful personality and charisma!!

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