By Julianna Clay (Charlotte Fife-Jepperson contributed to the story)
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a time when many Mexicans honor their ancestors in colorful, joyful celebration. In Mexico, some people celebrate near the graves of their loved ones in cemeteries. But here in the United States, they carry on the tradition mainly at community festivals.
Dia de los Muertos is thought to have originated during the time of the Aztecs in the 12th century, but some evidence suggests the tradition predates the Aztecs as far back as 3,000 years.
During the ancient Aztec period, Dia de los Muertos was celebrated during the month of August. It wasn’t until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas that it was later moved to coincide with All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day at the end of October and in early November. Upon discovering that they couldn’t eliminate the rituals from the people, the Spaniards embraced the holiday and added it to their own.
According to azcentral.com reporter Carlos Miller, the Aztecs kept skulls as trophies and used them during the holiday’s rituals as symbols of death and rebirth. “The natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake,” Miller said.
Today, those skulls are incorporated into Dia de los Muertos celebrations in different ways. Miller stated that people wear wooden skull masks called ITALICS calacas and dance in memory of their dead relatives. Celebrants also elaborately paint their faces to resemble skulls. The making of sugar skulls are another way this tradition has carried on. People make them with sugar, meringue and water and then decorate them in memory of a loved one with names and bright colors.
Like in the time of the Aztecs, people will make altars and shrines dedicated to their dead, and place on the altars sugar skulls, food, drink and flowers that the deceased liked in life. Orange marigolds and pan de muerto (sweet bread) add to the festivities.
In past years, Day-Riverside Library, Rico Warehouse, Mestizo Coffeehouse and Mestizo Arts and Activism in Salt Lake City have hosted activities honoring this holiday and its traditions. Activities included paper cutting (papel picado), sugar skull making, altar decorating and an open-mic night where people sang, danced, shared stories and poems and prayed together in honor of Dia de los Muertos.
Jarred Martinez, Kearns native and former co-director of Mestizo Arts and Activism, elaborated on the meaning of the Day of the Dead.
“In Mexico, I know the celebration is much more widespread, and there are additional traditions that various communities follow, so, there can be a lot of diversity in how Dia de los Muertos is celebrated,” he said. “The general idea is honoring loved ones who’ve passed.”
The spirit behind Dia de los Muertos is that life and death are linked and both should be causes for joyous revelry.