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Not just about the party, Día de los Muertos is rooted in Mexican Indigenous spirituality and traditions

For many in Philadelphia and Mexico, tonight marks the beginning of Día de los Muertos celebrations.

Cousins Abigail Hinojosa (left), 9, and Aurora Lopez, 7, dance as the 10th annual Día de los Muertos celebration ensues at the Fleisher Art Memorial on Oct. 29.
Cousins Abigail Hinojosa (left), 9, and Aurora Lopez, 7, dance as the 10th annual Día de los Muertos celebration ensues at the Fleisher Art Memorial on Oct. 29.Read moreJoe Lamberti

Every year as Adniel Avendaño grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico, his small community came together to clean their local cemetery. They would clear the weeds from the grass, wipe dirt and debris from the graves, and light the way with candles, all to welcome the returning spirits of their ancestors and relatives.

Now that Avendaño lives in Philadelphia, his Día de los Muertos celebrations look a little different. But as he builds his ofrenda each year inside of his apartment to honor his loved ones, he still sees the responsibility he has to welcome their spirits back every year. “You make them feel [like they’re] home,” he said.

» READ MORE: Altars, kites and color: How Philly celebrates the Day of the Dead

Día de los Muertos is a vibrant celebration of ancestors and loved ones who have passed, filled with parades, costumes, and dance. Most know the holiday for its instantly recognizable skulls, skeletons, and celebrations, and tend to lump it in with Halloween. But even while the holiday continues to grow in popularity, it is somewhat misunderstood.

For all of the partying and celebration associated with it, Día de los Muertos is just as much of a spiritual holiday, rooted deeply in Indigenous Mexican and Catholic practices.

Indigenous origins

Día de los Muertos began with celebrations thousands of years ago, when Indigenous Mexican peoples honored the dead and celebrated the cycles of life; it is the most contemporary version of these traditions, where those celebrating believe that once a year, the spirits of the dead temporarily journey back to Earth to be reunited with the living.

The holiday is celebrated from midnight Nov. 1 through Nov. 2, in part because this period of time also marked the end of the harvesting cycle for maize, a major crop for Indigenous Mexican people.

“We close the cycle of harvesting and planting, and we’re going to let Mother Earth rest,” said Carmen Guerrero, who is from Mexico and has Aztec and Mayan roots. “We celebrate because we give thanks for [being] alive and for the time we grow [crops].”

“Everything in the ofrenda has a meaning.”

Carmen Guerrero

Día de los Muertos is also celebrated these specific days because of its Catholic influences. As the Spanish colonized Mexico and Latin America, they imposed/ Catholic teachings and traditions. This included Catholic holidays honoring the dead, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which are celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November.

Now, the celebrations tend to be a mixture of both Indigenous and Catholic traditions. And though Día de los Muertos commemorates those who have passed, Guerrero said that the holiday is not a somber one.

“It’s [just] happiness because we are going to be together.”

A blend of spirituality and celebration

The ofrenda, or offering, is the bedrock piece of Día de los Muertos celebrations. People construct these extravagant altars in their homes to honor their loved ones, filling them with pictures of the dead and reminders of their lives, as well as traditional items to help welcome them back.

“Everything in the ofrenda has a meaning,” Guerrero said.

While no two altars are exactly the same, an ofrenda tends to have similar pieces. They are built in colorful tiers, with the bottom full of essential items for spirits making a long journey, like water and candles to guide them. As the ofrenda scales up, it typically holds the dead’s favorite foods, alcohol, or other items they may have loved when they were alive.

Bright orange cempasúchitl flowers, a Mexican marigold whose name comes from Nahuatl, are traditionally used to decorate the ofrenda, as well as papel picado, or cut paper banners, and calaveritas de azucar, or sugar skulls. Incense is lit as a tribute to Indigenous culture. And finally, at the top are usually pictures of the dead, as well as crosses or other religious symbols.

Then, there are feasts, parades, dancing, music, costumes, and skulls — all to represent the joy of being reunited with loved ones once again.

“Like most holidays, people really take the opportunity to just have a good time and party, which is awesome. ... But, [at the same time], a big spiritual component about that is making sure you’re reliving and you’re retelling stories of these family [members who’ve] passed away, taking that time to honor them,” said Manny Vasquez, whose family is from Los Angeles and who has Indigenous Zapotec roots.

Worries over commercialization

Día de los Muertos has steadily grown more popular since the 1970s, when Chicano artists in Los Angeles began promoting the holiday with face painting and other artwork. Before then, it was largely limited to intimate family celebrations and ofrendas, and was not the large-scale community event it tends to be now. In 2019, 2.6 million people attended the Día de los Muertos parade in Mexico City.

And while many celebrants are happy to see others embracing Día de los Muertos, they are concerned about how the holiday is being commercialized. There’s no clearer example than the 2017 Pixar film Coco, a Día de los Muertos-themed movie which made over $800 million at the box office. While the movie was just in its development stages, Disney even attempted to trademark the phrase “Día de los Muertos.”

“At some point, it was cool [seeing ourselves] being represented, but at the same time, there’s a lot of people misappropriating [the holiday] too,” said Avendaño, explaining how the spiritual and Indigenous roots of Día de los Muertos frequently get pushed aside. “We try to preserve [the meaning of the holiday] ... [but] sometimes the meaning gets lost.”

“And then they profit too. They shouldn’t do that, you know?” he said.

Vasquez recognizes that the holiday’s growth is inevitable, and is glad that more people are appreciating Mexican culture. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for [our] culture to be shared with everybody. It’s really beautiful, it’s bright, and it is a celebration,” he said.

He hopes that as more continue to celebrate, the fun, attractive parts of the holiday can still bring people into the spiritual and Indigenous foundation of Día de los Muertos. “These little practices that we get to do — wherever we might be — help tie us back to our families and our roots.”

The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.