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Understanding Dia de los Muertos

By Graciela Eleta

Nov 2, 2011

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a special day that has existed for thousands of years with religious connotations in Latin America, where it continues to be followed faithfully and is now celebrated in America.

The holiday holds a special place in the hearts of Mexicans, when family and friends gather to pray for and remember loved ones who have died, oftentimes with elaborate homemade altars. It is a more spiritual than solemn day, which begins on the eve of November 1 on All Saints’ Day and is celebrated on November 2.

The special day bears little resemblance to the other holiday it follows, Halloween, since it is not associated with evil spirits or scary situations and has nothing in common with the new entertainment landscape filled with vampires, werewolves and zombies.

Dia de los Muertos is not, as is often said, the Latino Halloween. The day of celebration falls close to Halloween so a link is often made, but for marketers hoping to grasp insights into Dia de los Muertos, there is a delicate balance for the Spanish-language dominant Latino.

U.S. Hispanics enjoy Halloween, but they celebrate both holidays separately and in their own way, from generation to generation. Dia de los Muertos is a respectful yet colorful day filled with happiness and remembrance.

Some marketers have already tapped into the growing market by offering some of the items that are often needed to make an altar complete on Dia de los Muertos: Families set up altars at home brimming with fresh flowers, oftentimes sweet-smelling yellow marigolds, or cempasúchil, as the flowers are known in Mexico; pan de muertos (bread for the dead) is often sold in Hispanic-friendly neighborhoods and is set out as a symbolic gesture for the person being remembered; a cup of water is left out for the person who has passed away to “drink” after a long journey, along with favorite foods; candles are placed nearby to light the way and to provide warmth; and decorative sugar skulls can be bought or made at home.

These rituals are in fact unique and can seem a bit unorthodox to non-Hispanics unaccustomed to discussing death so openly. Dia de los Muertos is often misunderstood because it may seem almost too festive. If it is, that’s because for many Latinos honoring the dead means being happy to have had that person in their life.

A growing number of pint-size ceramic skulls and skeletons found in storefront windows in predominately Hispanic neighborhoods pay tribute to the holiday, but these figurines are often dressed in elegant attire and carry a musical instrument or are placed in jaunty positions. The calaveras (skulls) and skeletons commonly used to mark the day are more figurative, not spooky like the ones used during Halloween. To mark the occasion, skull-bearing T-shirts, cards, calendars and coffee mugs are beginning to be found in traditionally less Hispanic neighborhoods which shows that the holiday has trickled into our “mainstream” culture.

Latin American culture is so vast and so multifaceted that honoring the dead should not come as a surprise. It is a different way of approaching life, even after a loved one has died.

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