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Day of the Dead / Dia de los Muertos

by Ladislao Loera
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated throughout Mexico and the Southwest States and coincides with the Christian All Souls and All Saints Days. On November 1 and 2 people remember those who are deceased. November 1 is considered the Dia de los Angelitos—the day to remember children that have died, November 2 is the traditional Dia de los Muertos.

Pictures of the deceased are placed on Dia de los Muertos altars with their favorite food and drink. Candles to light their way home and soap and water to freshen-up after their long trip back are also often placed on altars. Trinkets they were fond of, symbols they would understand and gifts are left to communicate to them that they are always in the hearts of those they left behind and that they are still part of the family even though they aren't physically with us any longer.

Read other articles:
FEATURE - Day of the Dead
PEOPLE & VOICES - Day of the Dead

Families often spend time at the cemetery with loved ones, bringing food and drink along with all the other necessities for a picnic. However, at this picnic the deceased is the guest of honor. Dia de los Muertos is a time of joy because we know that we are surrounded by those that we love—both living and dead.

People often compare Dia de los Muertos to Halloween, and while at first glance there may appear to be a similarity, in truth the two celebrations are quite different. Halloween is a European holiday that is based on their concept of death, which is vastly different from the original Aztec meaning. The Aztecs beliefs were very similar to the Aboriginal beliefs of Australia. This life is considered to be a dream, and when you die, you awake to your real life. Halloween, on the other hand, is celebrated with witches, demons and monsters and none of these are shown in a positive light.

Day of the Dead began as an Aztec celebration originally celebrated in August. Skeletons and skulls were used as symbols for death and rebirth. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it and considered it a "moving-on" to a higher level of consciousness. When the Spaniards came and converted the Aztecs, the Aztecs incorporated the symbols of the crucifix and devil into the celebration, which the Spaniards moved to November 2.

The Devil doesn't have the same meaning that he does in the religious "Exorcist" mentality. People often misunderstand other cultures' definition of the devil, and I have had many people offended by my Dia de los Muertos artwork that features him/her.
In many cultures there are deities that are neither all good, nor all bad, but a mixture of both. Depending on which side they got out of the bed that morning and how you treat them. Therefore, for these deities that may at times be cruel, can be treated with honor and respect by someone hoping to get their help and remain on their good side. This really is no different from the Old Testament God, who if he liked you, put you on an arc with two of every animal, and if he didn't he acted the part of the stereotypical mafia don and "let you swim with the fishes."

The devil did not exist for the Aztecs until their conversion to Christianity.

Dia de los Muertos art is meant to show the duality of life, which is that it can only exist surrounded by death. This is reality, not superstition. The artwork is meant to show this and make it, death, a part of life, to be accepted and acknowledged instead of feared.

As the old saying goes, "Every day is a dance with death." So live a life you enjoy, and when the time comes that those you love build altars to celebrate your life on the Day of the Dead, know they are thinking of you and they will join you in their own time.

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