Honoring Our Ancestors

Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum Day of the Dead/ Día de los Muertos

By Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Highlights for the Hollywood Forever Day of the Dead Festival 2012

Skeleton Couple Altar (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead 

El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a day of celebration, particularly for the people in Mexico and Central America, and for Mexican Americans in the United States. It is a day to honor and commemorate the lives of the dearly departed and to welcome the return of their spirits.

 

The tradition of the Day of the Dead is rooted in pre-Columbian and Spanish Catholic ritual customs. Today, this celebration has been increasingly popular among Latinos in the United States. Though many of the traditional elements have remained, the way and where the Day of the Dead is celebrated has changed. However, the unity of life and death continues to be the dominant theme of the art, tradition, and rituals of the annual celebration of the Day of the Dead on November 2, both in Mexico and the United States. 

Marigolds and Sugar Skull Ofrenda (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

The Day of the Dead celebrations at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA are known world-wide for their elaborate family altars, live performances leading up to the actual day and the large crowds that come to celebrate this significant cultural tradition.

Popsicle Ofrenda (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

In this interactive altar, people were asked to write the name of their deceased loved one on a Popsicle stick.

Altar Surrounded by Marigolds (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Aztec Totem Altar (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Pre-Columbian Customs & Beliefs

 For pre-Columbian cultures, life and death were not two independent states of being―death was an important part of the life cycle through which new life was created. The Day of the Dead may have also been related to the cyclical nature of agriculture because trees, plants, and crops grow from the ground in which the dead were buried. 

Aztec Temple Altar (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Thousands of years prior to the Spanish Conquest ethnic groups of the region including Olmec, Mayas, Toltecs, and Aztecs honored their dead with rituals by burying them in graves with offerings that included pottery, jewelry, textiles, food, and household objects.

 

Special months to honor and commemorate the deceased were dedicated, separating celebrations based on age and mode of death such as drowning, childbirth, or warfare.  During these months of celebration, the indigenous people believed that the deceased would return and they would need to offer gifts, flowers, food, incense, dances, and music as a way of gaining their favor.

"Baktun Mayan", LVM, 2009, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino
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Gods and Goddesses-2 (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Gods and Goddesses-4 (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Oversized representations of divine figures are very common to denote the strong presence of the deity is still watching over the cycles of life and death.

Gods and Goddesses-1 (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Aztec Blessing (2009) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Aztec Blessing Performance
Hollywood Forever Cemetery. LVM, 2009.

Ofrenda Night (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

The Ofrenda

The welcoming back of the spirits is observed in households with the creation of ofrendas.  The quality and degree of ornamentation of the ofrendas depend on regional traditions, family and individual wealth, recent deaths, or the year’s harvest. On the ofrenda, the main objects are symbolic of life’s elements: water, wind, fire, and earth. Water is served in a clay pitcher or glass to quench the spirit’s thirst from their long journey. Fire is signified by the candles that are lit. Wind is signified by papel picado (tissue paper cut-outs). The earth element is represented by food, usually pan de muerto (bread of the dead).  Other offerings include mole, fruit, chocolate, atole, toys, calaveritas de azúcar, and Copal incense. 

Altar Dedication to Guadalupe Virgin (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Pedro Alvarado Jr. Altar Dedication (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Storytelling is a key ingredient to any ofrenda. Families gather together and spend time sharing their stories and their family histories with one another. This cultural tradition brings family together. Each member of the family contributes to the storytelling.

Pedro Alvarado Sr. Altar Dedication (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Alvarado Family Altar Dedication-3 (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Alvarado Family Altar Dedication-1 (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Close Up of Traditional Mexican Skeleton (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Catrina Holding Marigolds (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead in the United States  

The contemporary Day of the Dead emerged during the Chicano Movement and has become part of the United States cultural mosaic in recent decades.  A wide range of activities are celebrated in different cultural and community venues. Children learned about the Day of the Dead tradition in classrooms or Americans can experience the celebrations in Mexico through the new cultural tourism.

 

Today, ofrendas combine traditional items such as calacas, sugar skulls, or pan de muerto with silk marigold flowers, electric candles and digital photo frames.  Ofrendas can honor family members or pop culture icons such as Frieda Kahlo and Celia Cruz. They can be personal statements of loss or can make social and political statements. Although the Day of the Dead continues to be transformed in many ways, the underlying sense of commitment to honoring the deceased loved ones and to celebrate life and death has remained.

Catrinas and Day of the Dead (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Johnny Ramone Altar (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Pop Culture Calavera (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead Folk Art-Shelves (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead Folk Art

Accessories and decorations are a main element of every ofrenda. They are also an important part of the Mexican (and central American) household. 

"La Catrina" Store Window (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead Folk Art-Pillows (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead Folk Art-Mirror (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Calavera Beads-3 (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead Folk Art-Signs-3 (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead Folk Art-Decorated Skull with Barbie (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead Folk Art-Tree Ornaments-1 (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Day of the Dead Folk Art-Sugar Skulls (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Sugar Skull are the most iconic element of an altar. This tradition also stems from the Catholic Church, which centuries ago used to make sugar art to decorate religious altars. Families make these to make sugary offerings to the visiting spirits.

Glowing Skulls (2012/2012) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Dance of the Jaguar (2014/2014) by LVMSmithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino

Music and Dance 

Music and dancing are important elements of the Day of the Dead tradition.  Mariachi, corridos, jarocho, traditional sones are among the music that is performed to honor the spirits. In Mexico, traditional dances such as La Danza de los Viejitos (the dance of the little old men) and La Danza de los Tecuanes (the dance of the tigers/jaguars) are also performed.  They add color and sound to the Day of the Dead celebrations. 

The Dance of the Jaguar, LVM, 2014, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino
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La Santa Cecilia Concert, LVM, 2009, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino
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Ozomatli Concert, LVM, 2012, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Latino
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