The Day of the Dead
by María Estela Romero
English | Español

November 1

Dear Journey North Friends:
I am writing to you today about our traditional festivity, la Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. On the first of November, we remember and honor the souls of our children and, on November 2nd, the souls of adults.

It is also today and tomorrow that the monarchs traditionally begin to arrive. The Purépecha Indians (the native people populating this region and most of the Michoacán State) believe that these butterflies are the souls of our dead people arriving to enjoy from the altar and ofrenda (shrine) their favorite drinks and food.

Death was believed to be a step into a new and better dimension beyond Earth. It never meant grief or terror at all. During pre-hispanic times (before the region became Mexico), the end of earthly life consisted of the soul of the dead person abandoning the body or corpse, and the continuance of his soul's "voyage" down to the Underworld, a place where peace and beauty prevailed. It was believed that there were four heavens in the Underworld: The first heaven called Chichihuacuauhco, was where only the souls of little children would go, where a big milk tree awaited them. The second heaven, Mictlán, was where the souls of all adult people dying in "natural" way would reach, by swimming across a wide river. The third heaven, Tlalocan, was where the souls of all people dying of a bad disease or from a disaster would stay. The fourth heaven, Ilhuicatltonatiuh, was a place where only the souls of courageous warriors and mothers dying in the moment they were giving birth to a child would leave, staying forever accompanying the Sun.

After the Spanish Conquest, part of these beliefs disappeared. The Catholic religion introduced the existence of Hell as a place full of punishment and pain, where the souls of the sinners would stay, and Heaven, where the souls of the "good" would stay.

Nowadays, part of the adoration of the pre-Hispanic way still prevails. The altar and ofrenda are set up to honor the memory of our dead friends and family, which on top has photos of our dead relatives. The whole table, all decorated with bright colorful pieces of paper, is surrounded with cempasuchils, the traditional flower for this day. Lighted candles help souls come to this place of adoration and then go back to heaven (underworld). The ofrenda also includes the relative’s favorite dishes and drinks when he was alive, like mole, atole, tamales, dead's bread, special-made Mexican candies, water, and beer. Cigarettes for adults or toys for a child can also be part of the shrine along with other regional dishes depending on the place.

The altar and ofrenda are placed at the homes of all Mexican families today. Some people visit graves at the cemetery playing live music there, --if the dead relative asked for it --when alive--, this you can see especially in small Indian communities.

In the end, the Day of the Dead celebration is a way to show that we Mexicans believe that death is a woman, and that we Mexicans, make fun and joke of life through it. We make sugar, chocolate and paper skeletons and skulls putting on them the names of our dear friends and relatives and make a present to them with a funny poem speaking of what they like, enjoy, but also hate and fear, what they are famous for (good or bad). We also joke with them about our politicians, artists, municipal authorities. Poems are really fun, since they speak of all the "truth” about them.

Nowadays, all educational institutions and society are making big efforts so as to reinforce our Mexican Traditional Festivity, remarking that the Halloween celebration is a North American celebration, not originally ours, especially in big cities.

I took some photos for you, so that you can get a better impression of this festivity in Mexico, and today in Angangueo.

The altar and ofrenda I show in them were taken in the school of my daughter, Laura Emilia, a private Catholic Elementary School.

María Estela Romero
Angangueo, Michoacan, Mexico

The Ofrenda

The photos appearing on the Ofrenda are:

  • Left: The priest in Angangueo in those times asking the Congregación Guadalupana to found this school in Angangueo, --75 years ago;
  • Middle: Pope John Paul II;
  • Right: the Bishop of our state, all of them dead nowadays.