Dia de los Muertos – A Very Brief Explanation
By Jerry R. Lopez
More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in today’s Mexico they encountered the indigenous people practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. They saw people building colorful and spectacular ofrendas (alters with offerings) with flowers, food, drinks, and personal items of the deceased. They observed laughter and festive activities like song, dance and humor.
For the indigenous people of Mexico this was their way of honoring, remembering and spending time with those who had come before them. They believed that this was the time for reuniting and honoring beloved ancestors, family and friends while at the same time celebrating the life they were currently living. Today this ritual is known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead.
While the exact date of when this practice began is unknown, it is speculated that the idea originated with the Olmecs, possibly as long as 3,000 years ago and was passed to other cultures such as the Toltecs, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztecs and the Mexcia.
This was not a time of mourning and like a Mexica elder once said, “The path back to the living world must not be made slippery by tears.” While it is strange for most to accept the practice that “death” and “festivities” can go hand-in-hand, for most Mexicans, the two do go hand-and-hand.During these Days of the Dead it is believed that the souls of the departed return to visit the living to eat, drink and be merry just as they did when they were living. The constructed ofrendas serves as an invitation to entice the deceased to attend the celebration as the guests of honor while the festive environment is for the living to celebrate that they are still alive.
Over the course of time many indigenous ceremonies were lost through colonization. However Dia de los Muertos endured, as there was a great deal of reluctance on the part of the indigenous people to give up this celebration.
Since the church had to preserve its membership to satisfy church authorities that progress was being made in converting the indigenous to Catholicism and the indigenous people wanted to preserve this highly revered sacred ceremony a compromise was able to be reached.
In the end the Spaniards reduced the holiday down from two months to two days and moved the dates to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on November 1st and 2nd.
The indigenous concepts did remain however as November 1st took the place of the first 20 days that was dedicated to the infants and children with the Ceremony of Los Angelitos. November 2nd took the place of the second 20 days that was dedicated to the adults and later became known as Dia de los Muertos.
Today Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated around the world. On Saint Paul’s West Side the annual celebration continues and offers activities for everyone. One can build an ofrenda, make sugar skulls and papel picado, bake pan de muerto, participate in a procession, and where possible attend an all night vigil and a celebration.
This year’s Dia de los Muertos celebration will take place on Saturday November 3rd 2012 at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center located at 179 Robie Street East in Saint Paul. The event is free and open to the public.
The celebration begins at 10 am when the doors open to the community to come in and build their personal ofrendas. The tradition of building the ofrenda has lasted the test of time and is probably the most well know and popular aspect of Dia de los Muertos.
At 5 pm there will be a procession starting at La Placita and ending at the Wellstone Center. People are invited to carry photos of their diseased loved ones. Once inside the procession will come upon a festival of a hundred ofrendas, arts and crafts activities, face painting, music, pan de muerto, hot chocolate and the annual traditional Mexica/ Azteca dance ceremony.
While the formal celebration will conclude between 9 and 10 pm, people will be encouraged to stay up all night to continue the grand family reunion of both those alive and dead.
Once the night has passed, it is believed that the spirits return to their world, and the ones that remain will come to realize the importance of living life to be well remembered, working in life to be well respected and loving in life to be well missed.
If you would like to build an ofrenda, or just want to learn more about this year’s Dia de los Muertos activites you can visit www.DDLMStPaul.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Felipe at 651-343-0687.