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The Past and Present of el Día de los Muertos: How the Living Commemorate the Dead

By Mia Kennedy


When October comes to an end, some families prepare buckets full of candy, dip apples in caramel, and place plastic gravestones on their front lawn. Others bake pan de muerto, mold sugar candies into skulls, arrange ofrendas, and celebrate el Día de los Muertos.

The roots of el Día de los Muertos go back to rituals practiced by Aztec and Nahua people living on land now known as Central Mexico. These pre-Columbian Mesoamerican practices lie on the idea that the universe is cyclical, and that death is a fundamental part of life.

In this North American indigenous culture, it was believed that when a person dies, their soul travels to the Land of the Dead, called Chicunamictlán. For the spirit to reach the final resting place, Mictlán, a challenging journey must be undertaken. The Nahua people would offer food, drink, and tools to these spirits to help them along their journey. This practice has transcended time and become an important aspect of el Día de los Muertos celebrations, along with certain elements of Catholicism.

Indeed, it is still a holiday to honour and celebrate the dead. On November 2nd, spirits become honoured guests when the border between worlds dissolves, and they return to the land of the living. To entertain and celebrate these spiritual visitors, there is music in cemeteries and homes, graves are cleaned and decorated, and families commemorate the deceased’s life by dancing, drinking, and feasting.

An important part of el Día de los Muertos are the ofrendas. Family members use altars to display a photograph of the deceased among offerings. Offerings can include the deceased’s favourite food and drink, candles, fresh flowers, and a glass of water. The candles and flowers are believed to help guide the spirit to the altar and the water is to quench the spirit’s thirst after the long journey to the land of the living.

This holiday has many important recurring symbols. For instance, skulls (calaveras) and skeletons (calacas) are used as the shape for decorations, masks, candies, and even bread. The shape of pan de muerto, a sweet bread typically baked for this holiday, is inspired by the form of human skulls. Orange and yellow marigolds, or campasúchil, are also an iconic element of the holiday.

Finally, with skull-shaped cookies, sugar candies, sweetbreads, traditional chicken-based dishes, and copious amounts of tequila and aguardiente, there is no question that when it comes to food, this holiday goes all out. They all help in the revelry during the Day of the Dead, to celebrate life and honour the dead.

Usually, Day of the Dead celebrations are an opportunity for communities to come together. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all public events related to this holiday have been cancelled. This year’s pandemic has caused people to lose more loved ones than ever and gives the day special significance.

To commemorate the importance of this year’s holiday, Martín Rodríguez, Mariza Rosales Argonza, and Francisco Fonseca have come together to present their joint creation “Your Guardian Angel” at the Instituto Cultural de México in Montreal. The large-scale installation honours all the people who lost their lives to COVID-19 and presents an opportunity for individuals to provide their own testimonies. Anyone is invited to share the life and legacy of a COVID-19 victim through the submission of an audio recording. It respectfully honours victims and gives the family and friends an opportunity to share their stories.

The installation uses ofrendas, projected videos, and audio testimonies to create a touching homage to the dead. It invites the viewer into a dark room lit by candles. Voices sharing legends, myths, and stories are layered over nature sounds, the chirping of exotic birds, the rustling of leaves and the gentle crashing of ocean waves. The poetic and emotional audio submissions can be in English, French, and Spanish. Enveloped in echoing testimonies and projected videos, it dives into the significance of this holiday. New media techniques highlight the importance of family, love, and unity in the unique exhibition. This participatory event is a beautiful way for the community to remember that, despite the isolation, they are not alone.


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