Many of us may be familiar with the sugar skulls and flower-crowned skeletons that pop up in stores around Halloween for Día de Los Muertos, but know little about the holiday itself.
Last weekend, I attended the Día de Los Muertos event presented by Nopal Cultural at the Eiteljorg Museum. At the event I learned about the holiday, enjoyed traditional Mexican music and dance performances, and participated in a community altar to honor the dead.
Día de Los Muertos is a holiday that originated from native civilizations and their beliefs and practices surrounding death. These communities believed that a person’s soul lived on after they died and could return home once a year to visit loved ones.
The holiday is typically celebrated on November 1st and 2nd and the central theme is to honor the dead through celebrations, festivals and music. Families travel to cemeteries to clean the final resting places of their loved ones and to leave gifts of their favorite food and drinks.
People also create altars, or ofrendas, at home which is a table covered with a tablecloth and decorated with papel picado, or decoratively cut tissue paper. The ofrendas often have multiple levels and feature photos and mementos of loved ones, cempasuchil, or Mexican marigold flowers, sugar skulls, skeletons, sweets, fruit, and candles.
The use of skulls and skeletons in Dia de Los Muertos celebrations originates from 16th century Mexico, when the country was a Spanish colony. During that time, death was personified as a female skeleton during Holy Week processions and funerals for nobility. The figure represents death as the great equalizer.
By the late 19th century, an acclaimed Mexican illustrator named José Guadalupe Posada created prints of skulls and skeletons, or calaveras, for periodicals. His illustrated skeletons were engaged in activities of the living and were used as social and political commentary. His most famous calavera is La Calavera de la Catrina, which has become an icon of Día de Los Muertos.
In the US, Día de Los Muertos celebrations are often held in public spaces, like museums, parks and community centers. The celebration at the Eiteljorg included a marketplace with vendors selling art, clothing, decorative items, and jewelry. Vendors also sold food like chicharrones de harina, a crunchy and flavorful puffed wheat snack and Pan de Muerto, a skull-shaped sweet bread.
The family friendly event featured arts and crafts for kids and adults included face painting, decorating skull necklaces, and printmaking with Chicago-based artist, Ricardo X. Serment.
Various performances and information sessions were held throughout the day.
Personal and public altars were displayed from various groups in the city, including the Mexican Consulate in Indianapolis, local schools and churches. Each altar was different and dedicated to an individual loved one, a group or in honor of a member of the local community.
Seeing the different altars showed me that there’s not one way to honor the dead, and the main purpose is to preserve and celebrate memories. Whether you celebrate Dia de Los Muertos or not, you can remember your loved ones throughout the year by telling their stories, displaying photos or memorabilia, and incorporating activities they loved into your daily life.
Lydia Johnson is the Operations Manager for Indy Reads. She’s a writer originally from Gary, Indiana who loves tea, poetry, and the arts.