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What the Colonizers Couldn’t Take

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos with the Spirit of Resistance

Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday celebrating the dead that is a continuation of ancient indigenous traditions dating back 3,000 years. When European colonizers came to the Americas they tried to stop the indigenous Aztec people from celebrating the dead in this traditional way, but the practice continued regardless. It’s important to acknowledge the inherent resistance against colonialism found in holding onto this tradition.

November 1st is Dia de lost Inocentes (Day of the Innocentes) which is for celebrating children and small animals who have died, and November 2nd is Dia de los Muertes which celebrates adults who have died. During these days, private altars called ofrendas are built in homes to honor the dead with aztec marigolds, calaveras (sugar skulls), favorite foods of the dead, candles, sage, fruit, tamales, mole, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and mezcal (alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant). There is no judgement of the deceased during these celebrations, so anything that might have been considered a vice in life is given to the dead.

Family members also visit their deceased relatives’ graves with these as gifts, play music and hold large parties in the cemeteries. In Mexico City, people paint their faces into “Catrina calaveras” and take part in parades. Catrina is a famous calavera (skeleton) that was created in the early 1900s and now is a national representation of death in Mexico, and the culture’s willingness to laugh at it. The image was originally a satire of colonialism and class difference, with the skeleton wearing a European dress showing that we’re all equal in death. Mexican culture has be said to “taunt death,” and Dia de los Muertes highlights this.

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The history of Dia de los Muertos can be traced back to indigenous observances of an Azetc festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead). When the European colonizers came to mesoamerica they tried to get rid of the holiday’s “pagan” traditions. Northern Mexico did not have much influence of these mesoamerican traditions, and adopted All Saints Day into their traditions while Southern Mexico continued to celebrated Dia de los Muertos. In the early 21st century the Dia de los Muertos and All Saints Day were melded and became a national symbol of Mexico; unifying national tradition with indigenous traditions.

The Mexican Day of the Dead celebration is similar to other societies’ observances of a time to honor the dead, but it is also a celebration unique to Mexico and remembering the importance of holding onto tradition even in the face of those who want to take it from you.

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