More people plan to live it up on the Day of the Dead

A popular holiday  is gaining a foothold in the United States.


Growing up in South Texas, Kiko Torres saw the Day of the Dead as an obscure holiday celebrated in southern Mexico. Few people dared to discuss it in his small but strong Catholic, Mexican-American community.

Still, Torres said he became fascinated by Day of the Dead folk art and ceremonies he saw during his father’s research trips to Mexico. Those images of dancing skeleton figurines and the event’s spiritual messages of honoring the dead, he said, were misunderstood in the United States.

“People here thought it was something to be scared of or evil,” said Torres.

But that’s changing. In the last decade or so, this traditional Latin American holiday with indigenous roots has spread throughout the U.S. along with migration from Mexico and other countries where it is observed. Not only are U.S.-born Latinos adopting the Day of the Dead, but various underground and artistic non-Latino groups have begun to mark the Nov. 1-2 holidays through colorful celebrations, parades, exhibits and even bike rides and mixed martial arts fights.

In Houston, artists hold a “Day of the Dead Rock Stars” where they pay homage to departed singers like Joey Ramone, Johnny Cash and even “El Marvin Gaye.” Community centers in Los Angeles build altars for rapper Tupac Shakur and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

“It’s everywhere now,” said Carlos Hernandez, 49, a Houston-based artist who launched the “Day of the Dead Rock Stars” event. “You can even get Dia de los Muertos stuff at Wal-Mart.”

The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, honors departed souls of loved ones who are welcomed back for a few intimate hours. At burial sites or intricately built altars, photos of loved ones are centered on skeleton figurines, bright decorations, candles, candy and other offerings such as the favorite foods of the departed. Pre-Columbian in origin, many of the themes and rituals now are mixtures of indigenous practices and Roman Catholicism.

The holiday is celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and parts of Ecuador.

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  1. That’s what I love about Latin American culture. It’s 90% Catholic and 110% pagan! So pagan that they make me look like a lightweight……:) Mexican Samhain!

  2. The Day of the Dead has become quite trendy among folk who don’t believe in life after death.

    As for Halloween, I much preferred it when it was conceived as a children’s festival, rather than an ‘adult’ occasion to dress sluttishly and drink to excess.

    (My apologies for my cynicism, which I can quite help at the moment)

  3. I hope this “holiday” does not gain too much momentum in the United States because it could take on the same misguided appeal of Mardi Gras.

  4. What you missed is that the “Day of the Dead” is actually “All Souls Day”, Nov. 2, in the Catholic calendar. It a day not just for honoring the dead, but for praying for their repose. It is not a pagan holiday.

  5. Grew up my first 19 years in Mexico, 9 in Mexico City and the rest in Juarez, across El Paso, Texas. What I remember about “Dia de los Muertos” is that it is a mixture of Catholic and Indian culture and beliefs. Basically people remember their death within the extended family, prepare elaborate “altars” with food, drink and portraits of the departed. Then on All Souls Day they go the the cemeteries and consume the food on top of the grave, clean the tombstones, paint them and put fresh flowers. The following day after All Souls Day is dedicated to those who died as infants. Mexicans confront death (or used to), they do not ignore it or sanitize it like Americans do, but recognize that the dead are as much a part of their lives and that death comes to us all. In olden days and in some rural communities, El dia de los Muertos is an impressive celebration with music, decorations, food, community and a sense of magic and religious spirit. Is it pagan? probably it has some of it, but the Christian side of it is also very, very important, and these are days when people pray rosaries, go to Church and say masses for the departed.

  6. Whenever some nice person starts talking about how much more devoutly Catholic Mexicans are I give a polite smile and think about the Day of the Dead and St. Death.

  7. Of course we are not more devout than Americans, but it works both ways; here we worship the unholy trinity of money, power and sex (just look at how preoccupied we are with it). But there are good and bad in all countries, and being Catholic goes beyond American or Mexican, sin doesn’t have borders. For the Santa Muerte phenomenon see what I wrote somewhere else:

  8. Thank you, Rudy, for your explanation.

  9. Daisy, it seems to me you have a poor understanding of both the Day of the Dead and Mexicans. What Rudy said (and more) about the U.S.’ “Unholy Trinity”, which makes its influence felt everywhere. As that famous saying by Porfirio Diaz goes, “Poor Mexico. So far from God! So close to the United States!”

    To add to Rudy’s fine explanation, a prominent aspect of the holiday is the marigold, which is strongly associated with the dead in Mexican culture. Graves and home altars are filled with bunches and bunches of marigolds, strung with garlands, and it’s petals scattered around. It’s one of the things that helps give the holiday its bright and joyful feeling.

    I learned the tradition a bit differently than Rudy in that deceased children were remembered on All Saints Day itself, which my mom calls “el dia de los Angelitos” (the day of the little Angels) and traditionally you’d leave “piloncillo” (little cones of sugar) on their altars or graves. The adults were remembered the next day on All Souls day itself. This is why some people call it “Dias de los Muertos” or “days” with an “s”, because it stretches out over 2 or 3 days.

    I think there are number of reasons why it’s growning in popularity. I think among Mexican-Americans a part of it iss discovering pride in your own traditions, and for us Mexican Catholics (still the majority) its a way to celebrate faith and culture at the same time.. Among non-Mexican Catholics part of it is the appeal of how “Catholic” the holiday (still) is, what with saint’s pictures and rosaries and Masses and prayers for the Dead and stuff. Among non-Mexicans in general part of it is the appealing attitude of Mexican culture towards death (as Rudy described above) and another part it is the appealing contrast it makes with Halloween as it has become today in many places.

  10. Looks a lot like the current Occupy groups.

    Speaking of Mexico, saw the second episode of Catholicism with Father Barron last night were he talked about the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the conversion after this within a few years of the entire country. This was after years of efforts by missionaries with very little success. I had the great honor of seeing Juan Diego 500 year old cotton tilma in the Basilica a few years ago and it was amazing to be in front of that blessed article.

    The book at the video series by Father Barron are truly an amazing gift to mankind and to the Catholic Church. We are having a meeting each week in the parish to go over each episode and the youth group of our parish is doing the same thing.

    From everything I have seen, the devotion of Mexicans to the Catholic Church is inspiring, especially the devotion to Mary, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of Our Lord.

  11. Speaking of the Latin community, I got an email today on the story of Father Rodriguez in El Paso who obediently left his parish when ordered by his bishop. He was sent off to a remote parish in the diocese for what appears to have been his preaching what the Catholic Church actually teaches to the letter as in the Cathecism.

    In view of all the posts regarding Father Pavone, thought this might be an interesting look at this priest / bishop relationship and how this move appears to be killing a Catholic parish drawn to authentic Church teaching.


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