“It’s more like the Mexican Memorial Day,” laughed Armando Gonzalez, board member for Flagstaff Nuestras Raices.
Nuestras Raices, Spanish for Our Roots, promotes Hispanic culture and history through events, gatherings and art. With Oct. 31 nearing, the group is preparing to bring to Flagstaff one of Mexico’s most lavish holidays: Dia de los Muertos, a three-day festival during which families and friends gather to remember those who have passed to the afterlife.
While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrations typically feature macabre images of grinning calaveras (skulls) and extravagant calacas (skeletons), according to Gonzalez, the occasion is not meant to scare you like Halloween.
“It’s not the Mexican Halloween,” he says. “We’re not trying to scare people. We’re honoring real people and dressing like real people, not superheroes and all that.”
Fellow board member, Becca Caballos-Delap, nods in agreement.
“Nothing about (Dia de los Muertos) should be scary,” she said. “Everything is supposed to be whimsical, the ofrendas, the flowers, the colors. It’s a celebration of life, not death. It’s about who they were and how they lived their lives.”
Dia de los Muertos has its roots deep within history, reaching down to Aztec culture, which celebrated festivals dedicated to the dead. In order to properly welcome the souls of dead who had returned home from the afterlife, relatives left out foods and drink for them. Those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos continue a similar tradition mixed with the Catholic observance of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Days before Oct. 31, the first day of the three-day celebration, family members of the deceased create an ofrenda, a delicately decorated offering on an altar to welcome their souls. Ofrendas are decorated with colorful cloth, framed photos of the deceased, candles, crosses and marigolds, as they are thought to be most attractive to the dead. Along with the decorations could be fruits and vegetables or beer and tequila and pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Copal is burned and flower petals often lead like a pathway, guiding spirits to the ofrenda.
Prior to creating the Celebraciones de la Gente (Celebrations of the People), an annual Dia de los Muertos event at the Museum of Northern Arizona, most members of Neustras Raices knew only bits and pieces about the festival. The Celebraciones de la Gente invites Nuestras Raices members and the greater Flagstaff community in learning about Hispanic history and culture.
“We’re still learning,” said Delia Munoz, another Neustras Raices board member. “For instance, you’re not supposed to put a photo of the living with the dead. For one, they're alive! We’re not honoring them; we’re honoring the dead. Some think it’s bad luck, too.
“How much of our community do we really know?” she asked. “In doing this we learned we all come from Hispanic heritage, but we all are very different. As years have gone by we have learned so much more about Dia de los Muertos and our culture and how that culture shapes how we identify ourselves.”
Death is an inescapable truth of life. Not the opposite of life. Rather, something life must go through. Like Piktru Paksha in India and the Bon festival in Japan, in which lanterns are lit to guide the spirits of loved ones to the afterlife, Dia de los Muertos is Mexico’s way to honor and aid the dead.
Death, still, is a tragedy, consuming the lives of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends. But Dia de los Muertos teaches that through the tragedy of death we can still find beauty in life.
“Some people, when they lose someone, they tuck that person’s belongings away — not to see them anymore because they don’t want to have that remembrance, and I think that’s sad,” said Munoz. “They’ have been in your life up until they died, so why put them away? Like a flickering light, we need to keep them going.”