By Pinn Duong
On October 31st, 2019, Global Education club, in collaboration with WOKE, Student Government Association celebrated The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos. It’s easy to be confused, but Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Dia de los Muertos celebrates the memories of the departed ones and welcomes the visits of their family members’ spirits into their homes with food offerings, beautifully decorated altars and cemeteries. On the contrary, the Celtic-originated Halloween strongly associated with fear of death and spirits from the underworld, with disguised costumes and jack-o’-lanterns to frighten off evil spirits and motifs of graves opening and the dead rising. As both traditions developed and popularized, their influences and symbols influenced one another (1).
Having learned about Mexican’s Day of the Dead during high school, I could not comprehend how people could remember the dead and their lost ones in such a festive mood and vibrant decorations instead of mourning, almost as if death and departure to the underworld is good news to be lauded and strived toward. But after watching Coco (2017 film), I realized by honoring the dead, we are honoring life itself, the time our beloved ones had struggled through and lived to their fullest. By celebrating the dead, we are keeping our departed ones alive even when they are no longer with us, “Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life – in the stories they tell about us” (Coco Film, 2017).
The most essential aspect of Day of the Dead lies in Ofrenda (Spanish for offerings), an elaborately decorated altar with personal items and favorite food and drinks of the one being honored. Many mistaken Ofrenda to be for worshipping, but those offerings are to entice the deceased to visit and to have a meal like a family.
I got to enjoy many of the traditional foods during the Day of the Dead at the celebration yesterday, including Mexican Rice and Beans, Churros and Dulce de leche sauce (cinnamon sugar stick with caramel milk sauce), Pico, Tortilla and Mexican Hot Cocoa.
The most easily recognizable symbols of Day of the Dead are Mexican Marigolds (or Flor de Muerto) and Chrysanthemums. The flowers’ vibrant colors and scent help guide the departed souls to come back to their altars and family for a visit and feast on offerings dedicated for them. Despite its bright yellow and orange colors, marigolds are often known as “flower of the dead.” Many people even craft their own colorful marigolds from colored tissue paper, plastic and pipe cleaners, just like many of the students and GCC staff crafted at the event.
Sugar skull, or Calavera, is another part of the holiday that emphasizes Día de Muertos is all about celebratory, not gloomy. The skulls are often colorfully drawn by hand with smiles, as if to laugh at death (2), and that “death doesn’t have to be bitter, it can be sweet” (3). They are also decorated with colorful icing, beads and confectionery.
The event also educates the attendees on some of the Mexican tradition by introducing Spanish phrases associated with the holiday and the culture. And if you are also learning Spanish like I am, let’s dig in / review some of the Spanish vocab (4):
- Día de Muertos: Day of the Dead
- La calavera: skull
- La Ofrenda: offerings (including personal items, food, drinks, decorations dedicated to the loved ones)
- La calaca: skeleton figure
- El espíritu: spirit / soul
- La ánima: another word for spirit / soul
- Flor de muerto: the vibrant orange/yellow marigolds
If there’s one thing you can take away from this post or from this holiday, embrace this irony, “The Day of the Dead makes us reflect on life. In order to have life, we need to have death. It’s that perfect and necessary duality” (5).