Día de los Muertos is a celebration dating to pre-hispanic times with its origins tracing back to Mexico. Indigenous communities, ranging from the Nahuas to the Zapotec, created rituals around death and worshiped the deceased through different practices. For example, one such practice involved sending the deceased off to the Mictlan — the Aztec underworld comprising the nine circles of hell — where souls must go through before they reach eternal peace. Those who worshiped the dead also equipped them with offerings to carry during their journey, and today, these offerings have taken shape as an altar.
A few elements distinguish Día de los Muertos: marigold flowers, papel picado, y pan de muerto. Every year, Mexican families –and those who honor the day—carry the tradition of performing rituals to commemorate their lost loved ones. They build their own altars with flowers, memorial items, candles, and sugar skulls (mostly used to show kids the celebratory aspect of this day). The altar serves as a portal to connect the living and the dead, and to celebrate the lives of those who have been lost.
Cities throughout the United States pay homage to the special day. In Chicago, The National Museum of Mexican Art hosts the largest Día de los Muertos celebration. The event is hosted annually with a special exhibition, Día de Muertos: Memories & Offerings and activities for families to build their own altars. This year, the exhibition is using the celebration to honor the lives lost to COVID. In Texas, you can find the annual Muertos Fest filled with cultural workshops, mariachis, dance performances and food vendors, and in New Mexico you can join the Muertos y Marigolds Parade to make calaveras (sugar skulls) and eat tasty food.
Across California, celebrations can be found throughout different cities like San Diego and Los Angeles. Los Angeles, home to the largest Mexican diaspora, celebrates the days with various activities, such as a festival on Olvera Street, and the largest event at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for the LA Day of The Dead. This year, Yolo County, located in Northern California is preparing to have its own celebration for Día de los Muertos. The celebration has a larger message: we need to come together to honor lives lost within our own communities. The non-profit promoting the event, Brown Issues, captioned their Instagram video, “it takes a barrio to save a barrio.” In it, elder Eddie Salas, or Fast Eddie as the community lovingly calls him, discussed the need for the community to come together and take this day to talk about ways to address community violence. “Lives are lost, and young people are going to prison who perpetrate those crimes, so we need to understand that there’s something we need to do,” explained Salas. It’s a reminder of the essence of Día de los Muertos—to honor lives lost and come together as a community.
Those looking to honor the day have many options throughout the country—festivals, processions, and parades are just a few of them. You can even build your own altar at home for a more intimate setting. The point of Día de los Muertos is to take a moment to reflect on those who came before you and those who are no longer with us. What stories do you carry with you? What memories are a part of you? How do you keep them alive?