Skip to main content

Day of the Dead, Part II: Re-Made in America

Day of the Dead, primarily a Mexican holiday, has seen its influence spread across the globe.

The Day of the Dead, primarily a Mexican holiday, has seen its influence spread across the globe. Its origins can be traced back to the indigenous cultures of Mexico as far back as 3,000 years ago.

The Spaniards forced the Aztecs to move their month-long celebration that had been held during what corresponds to August according to their calendar. But although the conquerors put the holiday in line with the Catholic observances of All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2), the indigenous are having the last laugh, as their supposedly pagan ceremonies continue to be celebrated almost exactly as they'd been doing for time immemorial.

As Mexican influence—and Mexicans themselves—have traveled and emigrated, particularly to the United States, they have brought their traditions with them. Moreover, it's catching on of its own accord.

The U.S. celebrations, too, carry the typical private altars adorned with sugar skulls, marigolds and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Graves are cleaned and decorated, toys are brought for dead children, and alcohol is often offered to the deceased adults, such as tequila, mescal or pulque.

Celebrations are often humorous, with celebrants recounting funny events and anecdotes about their lost loved ones. People also write short poems, called calaveras (skulls) and mocking epitaphs of friends. The traditions and activities of a Day of the Dead festival can vary dramatically from town to town, state to state, or country to country.

In the United States, Day of the Dead celebrations can be found in areas with Mexican residents, such as Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. The All Souls Procession has been going in Tucson since 1990, combining traditional Day of the Dead celebrations with pagan harvest festival traditions. Americans celebrate Day of the Dead in different forms and for different reasons, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, from Missoula to New York City. News organizations from the Associated Press to the Huffington Post to Fox News are picking up on the growing trend of Day of the Dead celebrations in the United States.

In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, parades and festivals abound, with people gather at cemeteries to pray for their dearly departed at day's end. Day of the Dead celebrations have spread to Europe and many Asian cultures.

What they all have in common is they all have that original, indigenous root. Let's take a look at some of these celebrations.

New Mexico

New Mexico has several Day of the Dead events. In Sante Fe, El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe features altars, installations and flat work that honors the dead and provide offerings to the living. It went on display during the Railyard Art Walk this past Friday, October 28th, and will stay on display there until November 2. Every October and November in Albuquerque, the National Hispanic Cultural Center joins the New Mexican community in order to celebrate "Día de los Muertos." This year, the Instituto Cervantes of Albuquerque will join them with a photograph exhibition in order to preserve this tradition. This sample will show how different Hispanic-American countries live experience such a special day. Several altars will be installed to celebrate Día de los Muertos. Then on Sunday, November 6, the Marigold Parade & Celebration takes place in Albuquerque.

Port Isabel, Texas

The Museums of Port Isabel,which is a small town of about 5,000 souls located in the very southern tip of Texas, hosts an annual Day of the Dead Festival. This year it landed on Saturday, October 29, and was held at the Port Isabel Museum, in collaboration with the City of Port Isabel, the Laguna Madre Museum Foundation, the Port Isabel Economic Development Corporation, and the Laguna Madre Art League. There was music, sugar skull candy workshops, altar making, street dancing, and lots of Day of the Dead Altars and artwork on display.

Backstage at the 1973 Oscars: Sacheen Littlefeather holding the speech Marlon Brando had asked her to give.

Backstage at the 1973 Oscars: Sacheen Littlefeather holding the speech Marlon Brando had asked her to give.

Tucson, Arizona

The All Souls Procession had its beginnings in 1990 with a ritualistic performance piece created by local artist Susan Johnson, who was grieving the passing of her father. Inspired by Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos holiday, Johnson felt she should honor her father in celebration and creativity. Today, the All Souls Procession includes 20,000 participants who traverse a two-mile long procession in downtown Tucson that ends in the finalizing action of “burning a large urn filled with the hopes, offerings and wishes of the public for those who have passed. Inside the event are myriads of installation art, altars, performers, and creatives of all kinds collaborating for almost half the year to prepare their offerings to this amazing event,” their website states. The All Souls Procession is a celebration and mourning of the lives of loved ones who have passed. 

Los Angeles

Taking place this past October 22, Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever cemetery was created to provide an authentic venue in which this ancient tradition could be observed, celebrated and preserved. The Day of the Dead in Hollywood was conceived of as a platform which would "synthesize creativity for the means of remembering the departed spirits of our lives," states their website, Día de los Muertos.

Gary Davis as Michael Frost on the Netflix series 'House of Cards'

Gary Davis as Michael Frost on the Netflix series 'House of Cards'

San Francisco

San Francisco's Annual Day of the Dead celebration! Wednesday, November 2, 2011 in Garfield Park. San Francisco’s Dia de los Muertos is based on the traditional Meso-American holiday dedicated to the ancestors; it honors both death and the cycle of life. In San Francisco, Day of the Dead has been celebrated in the Mission district, where the largest percentage of the city’s Mexican-American residents reside, since the early 1970s. There’s art, music, performances and a walking procession, all done in an effort for participants to contemplate their existence and mortality—a moment to remember deceased friends and family, and our connections beyond our immediate concerns.

Missoula, Montana

This past Oct 27 2011, The Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) Steamroller Print Project continued for its 11th straight year. Started in 2001, the project began as a means to get students, artists, and community to come together in a cooperative event. The project started with students enrolled in printmaking courses at The University of Montana under the direction of professors James Bailey and Elizabeth Dove."

New York City

Day of the Dead at Saint Marks Church in the Bowery in the East Village from this past Saturday, October 29 to Wednesday, November 2. The celebration includes recreating a Mexican village churchyard and offers events to honor those who have passed. There are also workshops for all ages, such as altar-building, paper flower making, poetry writing and bread baking. Visitors are encouraged to bring photographs, candles and flowers to adorn the altar in honor of their deceased loved ones, or just drop by and enjoy the experience of this five-day celebration, which also includes musical performances and a traditional dance procession. At the Day of the Dead celebration at the Queens Museum of Art, located in Flushing Meadows’ Corona Park this past Sunday, the Queens Museum of Art celebrated Dia de los Muertos with a drop-in family altar building workshop led by local artist Raul Hurtado. The resulting collaborative piece was displayed in the museum’s lobby throughout the celebration. At 3pm, there was a special dance recital by the Mexican Folkloric Ballet troupe, which will included indigenous folk dances from various regions of the country. Families aslo sampled delicioso pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread) and Mexican hot chocolate.

Washington, D.C.

Starting on Sunday, October 30, and going through to November 23, the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., will showcase its traditional Day of the Dead Altar, a quintessentially Mexican tradition and one of our most colorful displays of the year. In this photo, Benjamin, 6, walks near an altar assembled for an exhibition of Day of the Dead celebrations in honor of the people who participated in the Mexican Revolution at Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington last year on Halloween. The Day of the Dead is the result of the fusion of indigenous and Spanish cultures and is one of the most important traditional holidays, underscoring the deeply held belief in Mexico that death is strongly tied to life as the fundamental duality of human existence.

Mike (played by Zahn McClarnon, right) and Phillip (Jason Momoa) hav an ominous conversation on a riverbank in a scene from the first episode of 'The Red Road.'

Mike (played by Zahn McClarnon, right) and Phillip (Jason Momoa) hav an ominous conversation on a riverbank in a scene from the first episode of 'The Red Road.'