Dia de Los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a traditional Latin American two-day holiday that celebrates the lives of family, friends and loved ones who have passed. Some create alters to commemorate, while others see it as a day of remembrance.
The holiday dates back 3,000 years to the Aztecs who believed that once someone passed, they were sent to the Chicunamictlán, which translates to the Land of the Dead, where the soul will complete nine levels over the span of several years.
Once the soul has finished the nine levels, it will be sent to the Mictlán, which is the final resting place.
The holiday is celebrated from Monday, Nov. 1 through Tuesday, Nov. 2. The first day is known as El Dia de los Inocentes or “Day of the Children”, which celebrates the lives of children who have passed. The second day is known as “All Souls Day”, where all that have passed are celebrated and remembered.
“All Souls Day” was a tradition brought from Spain and would consist of a picture of the person who had passed and marigold, which is similar to the alters that are created in the modern-day.
With the holiday arriving soon, Long Beach State’s students and faculty prepare for the two-day celebration.
CSULB Chicano studies professor Antonia Garcia-Orozco said she will make her “Introduction to Chicano Life” class create a virtual altar for the holiday as an assignment.
Since her class is entirely online for the fall 2021 semester, they are unable to display an actual altar in her classroom like they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garcia-Orozco said the assignment is used to help the students understand the meaning of the holiday.
“It doesn’t just need to be people you know, it could be people you admire, heroes, idols, athletes or role models,” she said. “The idea is to share happy thoughts and happy memories.”
Garcia-Orozco said she was always intrigued by the holiday, even though her mother didn’t celebrate the holiday when she was young.
“My mom didn’t like to celebrate any of these indigenous holidays, but I was always fascinated,” she said. “One of my aunts from Michoacán, she would always talk about it and get so excited.”
She now celebrates the holiday each year, in remembrance of her father. She visits his gravesite and celebrates by hiring a trio of Mexican musicians to play his favorite music and bringing his favorite alcohol, Castillo rum.
Garcia-Orozco explained that you don’t have to go all out each year to celebrate the holiday, but the celebration of life is most important.
“It’s a different way of thinking about the cycle of life,” she said. “It’s more important to understand that life is not permanent and that there are other plains of existence.”
She said the holiday is met with criticism by those who don’t understand the meaning of the holiday and assume it celebrates death.
“Some people say ‘isn’t that a little creepy that you’re celebrating death?'” she said. “I say ‘no’, this is not a celebration of death, this is a celebration of a life well-lived.”
Melony Lara-Benitez, communication studies major in their fourth year at CSULB, will also be celebrating the holiday.
Lara-Benitez, whose family is from Jalisco, Mexico, says some of their family traditionally celebrates the holiday, whereas the rest have tried to do away with it.
“When I was younger and first heard of Dias de Los Muertos, I made sure that we did something every year,” they said. “I want to make sure that a practice as special as that doesn’t get lost.”
Lara-Benitez said that they try to keep the family tradition alive by creating an alter each year of family members who have passed away.
They weren’t able to create an alter this year, as they normally would, but will elect to buy one this year from the small business Alma’s Oilcloth & Chucherias, which specializes in traditional artensanias (handicrafts) from Michoacan, Mexico.
“When I’m not able to make an alter, at the very least, I share my culture and inform people of its history through social media,” they said.