The History and Tradition of

"Day of the Dead"

By Susan Dearing

Click on photos to enlarge

Years of traditionThe "Day of the Dead," or Dia de los Muertos can mean different things to the Mexican people. For many in Manzanillo, it is a very important cultural event, while for others it is a religious observance. Some, particularly young children, simply consider it a Mexican holiday, with parties, parades, and a variety of Mexican foods and confections.

"Coronas" for the grave can be store-bought or made at homeIt seems that in the more modern Mexican cities, less emphasis is placed on the cultural and religious connotations of Dia de los Muertos. In rural areas, there is much more social and economic significance attached to this event, observed Nov. 1 (All Saint's Day) and Nov. 2 (All Soul's Day).

To ensure a safe passageManzanillo, having a 450-year-old history of foreign invaders, still has deep Indian roots going back thousands of years. Many families living here and in the town's outlying pueblos and even smaller ranchos still practice the rituals of the indigenous peoples. When a person is killed on the road, you may see a memorial such as this one, to help guide him on his final journey.

Skulls of relatives were kept by the AztecsWhen Cortez' conquistadors arrived in the area in 1523, they were shocked that the natives practiced a strange ritual that appeared to mock death. The Spanish viewed death as the end of life, but the native Indians viewed it as a joyous celebration of thecontinuation of life. Actual skulls of the departed were kept in the familys' dwellings. Today, colorfulpaper maché "calaveras" (skulls), are treasured, and often have the deceased's name written on it.

Available at Maria Cumbe boutiqueUnfortunately, the Spanish thought the rite to be sacrilegious, and believed that the local indigenous people were barbaric. Though attempts were made to convert them to Catholicism, the Indians refused to give up their strong beliefs. 

The morning after Dia de los MuertosThe Spanish priests were able to change the date of the holiday, however, from late July-August (on the Aztec calendar) to November, so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve, which we now call Halloween. The result is that Mexicans now celebrate the day of the dead during the first two days of November, rather than at the beginning of summer.  At this time Mexican families remember their dead, and equally celebrate the continuation of life.

A typical gravesiteThe day's activities consist of families visiting the graves of their loved ones. They will plant flowers and bushes at the gravesite, decorate it with wreaths and live bouquets of wild and greenhouse-grown flowers, and even have a picnic, where they enjoy the favorite foods of their loved ones! They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. Many visit the grave of a loved one with a Corona in one hand and a candle in the other!

One-stop shoppingLast year, at one of our local, older cemeteries, they sold flowers at the entrance and asked for a donation to go in. When I asked what the "donation" was for, I was told they wanted to build a new wall and bathrooms! If you plan to stay a while, and have a picnic with "adult beverages," I guess you'll need the W.C. eventually.  Note that there's a "Sol" beer sign in the background, coming from a convenience store next door to the cemetery.

An all-night vigilMany family and community members are very proud of their memorials. One woman told me all about her family's history in Manzanillo,  and of her relatives buried in the cemetery, and proudly posed in front of her mother's grave.

Shadowbox depicting the traditional family altarFamilies also have altars or shrines in their homes or businesses honoring relatives. Candles are usually kept burning day and night, and many times a rosary is draped around the Virgin Mary, or around a crucifix. The traditional flower is a marigold, or its relative, the chrysanthemum, called "xempasuchitl." 

Hardened resin The incense used on the altar is "copal," a tree resin, from the "arbol de la noche (tree of the night)." Its use dates back thousands of years to Aztec and Mayan ceremonies at the top of their pyramids. The word "copal" comes from the Spanish word "copalli," which means incense. 

Bark from the copal treeThere are two forms of copal that are sold locally, as well as copal incense sticks. The one looks like dried tree bark. The second form is a fossilized resin that looks more like a rough-cut chunk of crystal. It's final stage is amber, which, locally is made into jewelry. The resin type of copal comes from a ground deposit that is 1,000s of years old. It is believed that burning it helps the spirit of the departed find his way home.

Representation of a typical altarThe altar will contain food that the deceased liked, also his or her favorite kind of drink, a candle to light his path, water for his thirst, salt for his food, something personal (that used to belong to him)--all to help him remember when he was in this world.  

Fresh candles are placed on the grave of this young childSome believe that the spirits of their loved ones return to earth this one time each year. The aroma of the flowers and the scent of the incense (which, like the spirits, can't be seen) is absorbed by the dearly departed. After the essence, or aroma has been consumed by the dead. the spicy foods and the candy treats (that were his favorites) are eaten and given away by the living, 

Ceremonial maskWooden skull masks, called "calacas," are donned by relatives who dance in honor of their deceased family members. Wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. A small pueblo in Colima, Suchitlan, is famous for its hand-carved wooden masks. The one on the left is on the wall of a restaurant in Suchitlan, "Los Portales."

Give a gift Sugar skulls, made with the name of the deceased on the forehead, are given away as gifts, to be eaten by a relative or friend. Other skull decorations are seen everywhere, in every shape and form. Fashioned from wood, paper maché, sugar, or clay, they symbolize death and rebirth.

Inexpensive gift itemsOther gift and altar items are available for those who haven't the time to make them. Impromptu altars are set up on secretarys' desks, on tables in front of and inside of businesses, and in yards. Part of the preparation for Dia de los Muertos is to set up an altar in memory of the love one.

Various "Catrina" sculptures are given as giftsFamilies remember the departed by telling stories about them. These anecdotes are passed on for generations. (Something like in my family, when we'd sit around the fireplace on a cold winter evening and reminisce about "how grandpa tipped over the outhouse with Uncle Sam in it on Halloween night.") Photos of the deceased are placed on the altar, as is other memorabilia.

Remembering the deadThere is usually a procession to the cemetery, preceded or followed by prayers and a family supper. Today, in Manzanillo, there are many working people, so the festivities have to coordinate with everyone's schedule. Many times, the family members will leave a trail of chrysanthemum petals from the gravesite to their home, so the spirit will be able to follow.

The bread has the flavor of a sweet roll The dinner features special spicy meat dishes (such as chicken molé) that were favorites of the deceased, and a special "pan de muerto," or bread of the dead. Inside the rounded loaf (with a cross on top), there is a plastic toy skeleton, added by the baker. It is considered good luck to get the slice with the skeleton.

Sketch from the early 1900sJose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), was a Mexican artist and political cartoonist. He was a fierce supporter of the downtrodden, and depicted the horrors and tragedies in bold black and white. He did caricatures of the rich and political (all depicted as skeletons), 

The famous CatrinaThe wonderful illustrations he produced have delighted people for many years, and his art has become almost synonymous with Dia de los Muertos. Throughout Manzanillo, you will see skeletal figures, the most famous being Catrina, a figure in a plumed hat and dress, with a skull head. (See the photo four paragraphs above on the right.)

Cemetery backs up to elementary schoolOther areas may celebrate this holiday a little differently than it's done in Manzanillo, and even here there's many variations to the theme. If you are planning on visiting Manzanillo during Dia de los Muertos, however, please stop by one of our old, but traditional cemeteries (at least the one in Santiago), and donate to their bathroom. They still don't have it built yet, and with all the tequila and Corona bottles I saw in the cemetery today, they sure do need it!

Note: Author Susan Dearing thanks all the Manzanillo residents who contributed to this story by explaining about a centuries-old tradition. Although I had been observing Dia de Los Muertos for over 20 years, I had no idea that it was so important to the Mexican people until I did research for this article. Also, many thanks to Rosela of Maria Cumbé boutique and Marina of Las Primaveras for their loan of the gift items represented in this article.

For information on Manzanillo and the state of Colima, other customs, festivals and activities, order the 150 page tourist guidebook written by Susan Dearing,