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Skulls of different shapes, sizes and materials litter a table in the Interdisciplinary B building on ASU’s Tempe campus where students sit contentedly decorating them. But this isn’t some sort of superficial, Ouija board session put-on — for business entrepreneurship sophomore Briana Juarez, it’s a way to feel more connected with her ancestral culture.
Growing up a first-generation American in Rancho Cucamonga, California, Juarez says her family didn’t practice a lot of the traditions and rituals she witnessed second-hand via photographs her grandparents brought back from trips to their native Mexico.
One tradition in particular sparked her interest: Dia de los Muertos — or “Day of the Dead” — a three-day festival that originated in Mexico to celebrate the lives of friends and family who had passed on.
“I just wanted to know more about it, and it was also a way to get to know my grandparents better,” said Juarez.
So this year, the community relations director for the Hispanic Business Students Association thought it would be fun to create a Day of the Dead altar at ASU to provide some insight into Chicano culture.
The Day of the Dead altar is currently on display in the first-floor hallway of the Interdisciplinary B building. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to add photos and other ephemera to honor departed loved ones.
ASU Now spoke with experts in the School of Transborder Studies to find out more about the history of the holiday, as well as some facts and misconceptions. Read on to learn more.
In fact, it was originally just called Dia de Muertos; globalization of the holiday prompted the adding of the “los.”
The celebration dates back to pre-Columbian times, when indigenous peoples in south and southeast Mexico spent three days honoring friends and family members who had died in order to aid them along in their spiritual journey.
As the holiday spread to more countries, specific practices having to do with the rituals associated with it began to vary greatly. But that fact is hardly a point of contention between cultures.
Rather, as School of Transborder Studies assistant professor Saskias Casanova explains, it “allows people to come together to celebrate loved ones who have passed and bring their own perspective and culture to it.”
When the Spanish came to Mexico, they brought along Catholicism, and indigenous peoples began to incorporate elements of the religion into Day of the Dead. Crosses were added to altar displays, along with the original decorations and offerings of skulls, photos, candles and food.
Though the holiday had always been a fall celebration, the influence of the Catholic Church set the official day of celebration as Nov. 2, which just happens to be the Catholic holiday All Souls Day, also a celebration of the deceased.
Indigenous cultures in Mexico would visit cemeteries where loved ones were buried and bring along food and offerings. But when the holiday began to be practiced by immigrants in the U.S., they didn’t have cemeteries to visit and so made altars to their deceased loved ones instead.
Even the type of food varies. Some indigenous peoples in Mexico make pid, a type of pie, which they then bury underground as an offering. In the United States, however, a specific type of bread in the shape of a skull is often used as a food offering on Day of the Dead altars.
Though the celebration shares its first day with Halloween — Dia de los Muertos begins on Oct. 31 and continues through Nov. 2 — they are not one in the same.
Halloween has its roots in Christianity, and though it too began as a day to commemorate the dead, it has since become a secular, widely commercialized holiday.
“Dia de los Muertos is more than anything a family event,” said Alejandro Lugo, director of the School of Transborder Studies. “It speaks to the importance of the role of the family in Mexican culture.”