Each year on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 children wearing skull masks and painted faces wander the streets of Mexico and various Spanish-speaking countries.
In their hands they carry bright orange marigolds and sweet bread to the local cemetery to pay tribute and feed the souls of dead relatives and loved ones.
During this time, altars are built by families who decorate them with candy skulls, artwork depicting skeletons and trinkets held dear by the deceased.
The holiday dates back nearly 3,000 years to early Central American civilization practices. These early Central American native societies tended to celebrate death and rebirth using human skulls as decorations during celebratory periods.
After Catholicism became the dominant religion in Central and South America, traditions like the lighting of candles and use of Christian symbols like the cross were incorporated into the tradition. Maria Garza, associate Spanish professor and Martha Mendoza, director of the Student Success program in the College of Arts and Sciences both celebrate the holiday and offered their personal experience with the spiritual days.
“Yuma didn’t celebrate it when I was growing up, but for me now it is something fun, a celebration. The holiday turns the graveyards into beautiful places to visit loved ones,” Garza said.
Central Mexican influence has brought a more traditional way of celebrating the holiday to Garza’s hometown.
“The sugar skulls were my favorite. Sometimes you wouldn’t eat them, you would lick them a little bit. It was cool buying ones with your friends names on them,” Mendoza said.
Traditionally, sugar skulls are sold with common names that can be used to decorate altars and honor the dead.
“I learned about the holiday through research and travels in college and then started my own traditions,” Garza said.
Garza explaining she has built an altar in the Department of Modern Languages office space for the last 10 years furthering her adopted Día de los Muertos traditions.
“I know in my experience in Mexico it is celebrated in many different ways depending on the subculture in each different state,” Mendoza said.
Growing up in southern Mexico, Mendoza took part in traditional celebrations with friends and family.
Difference in Culture:
“It is a celebration, a commemoration; there really isn’t anything sad about it,” Garza said, explaining that Día de los Muertos isn’t a somber traditional in Spanish cultures. It is considered a party.
“My mother and I painted traditional masks but we were almost afraid to give them out to the kids because people might think we were creepy,” Mendoza said about celebrating Día de los Muertos with her son at his recent second birthday party.
Altar Do’s and Don’t’s:
“The altar would be up for 10 days or so but all of the candy and cokes would be gone in three days,” Garza said.
The food placed on the altar are the favorites of the person or people being remembered. Garza and her students got over $200 worth of flowers from local distributors each year they built an altar and they used every single one.
“My mother would make food to put on the altar and wrap it in saran wrap. Sometimes the food would be gone, but you aren’t supposed to eat the food, it’s for the dead,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza decorates her altars with sweet bread and candy skulls, or the favorite food and drink of deceased family and loved ones.
For more images, go to the Dia De Los Muertos gallery at arbiter.photoshelter.com