Día de los Muertos holiday is ‘rooted in Indigenous celebrations of life’

This illustration depicts an ofrenda decorated for Día de Los Muertos, complete with photos, offerings and traditional marigolds. In Mexico, marigolds symbolize the power of the sun and are believed to bring souls back to this plane.

Kimberly Clairmont, News Contributor

Oregon State University faculty members provide insight into the historical roots, misconceptions and cultural significance surrounding the upcoming holiday, Día de los Muertos.

Nov. 1 and 2 are recognized by the Catholic Church as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively. 

Jose-Antonio Orosco, a professor of philosophy at OSU, said Día de los Muertos has become very popular in the United States in the last 20 to 30 years, with some cities sponsoring parades and events.  

“It’s important to remember that Día de los Muertos is rooted in Indigenous celebrations of life and is not focused on death, sadness or dark magic,” Orosco said. “It’s a time to remember the interconnection of all life and our obligations to our ancestors and those to whom we will become ancestors.”

Orosco said some people think Día de los Muertos is the “Mexican version of Halloween” but that it is actually much different. He also explained that Halloween itself is a U.S. holiday rooted in many ancient pagan traditions going back to Indigenous peoples in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

“There are many different peoples around the world [who] find this time of year as spiritually special; as a time to honor ancestors,” Orosco said. “Halloween today captures some of these traditions, but it has become much more commercialized and disconnected from those spiritual roots.”

Many years ago, Orosco visited villages surrounding Lake Patzcuaro during the Día de los Muertos celebration, which is when he first really learned about Día de los Muertos. Orosco spent the evening with various Indigenous families as they waited for the spirits of their ancestors and loved ones to return to the cemeteries brightly decorated with candles, altars and flowers.  

“It was a very special event and I was grateful to be able to share the evening with people when they welcome their family members back to this plane of existence,” Orosco said. 

Many families decorate altars with traditional marigold flowers. According to Orosco, the marigold is a powerful symbol in Mexico. The flower embodies the power of the sun, and it is thought to draw the souls of the dead back to this plane of existence.

“Among some Indigenous peoples in Mexico, the hummingbird is a sign that a soul has come back to earth,” Orosco said. 

Nicole von Germeten, professor of Latin American and Spanish history at OSU, has been researching Mexican history for 25 years. She has published various works about the history of religion in Mexico, as well as African and Spanish influence on religion in Mexico.

“Indigenous people took the aspects of Catholicism that were useful and appealing to them,” von Germeten said.

According to von Germeten, Mexican historians believe Indigenous peoples incorporated two key aspects of Catholicism: visual culture and community. Sights, smells, food, celebration and music are popular in Catholicism and Indigenous peoples’ practices for hundreds of years.

Since the 19th century, print images of catrinas and calaveras—female skeletons and skulls—developed by Jose Posada, have been vastly associated with Día de los Muertos. According to von Germeten, many people love this imagery often seen within pop culture, parades and decorative pieces.

“What is important to emphasize is that a lot of the belief systems that exist in Latin America… a lot of those systems in some way or another value their ancestors,” von Germeten said.

Von Germeten emphasized that people don’t need to be devout or extremely religious to take a moment to remember a loved one that has passed. It could be fun to put out a sugar skull, a candle and a marigold for them.

Daniel Fernando Lopez Cevallos, associate professor within OSU’s ethnic studies program, noted many similarities between Latin American and Mexican celebrations for Día de los Muertos. 

According to Cevallos, Ecuadorian traditional celebrations emphasize the consumption of guaguas de pan, which means babies made of bread.

“They decorate the loaf of bread that has the shape of a little baby all wrapped up, and it is decorated—in a way like the sugar skulls would be [decorated] in Mexico, brightly decorated,” Cevallos said.

On the Day of the Dead in Ecuadorian traditions, a dark purple beverage called colada morada is served hot. The drink is a combination of cornflour, blackberries, pineapple, mortiños—a fruit similar to blueberries—and various other fruits, herbs and spices.

“In Ecuador, the Catholic Church has a strong presence and we would go to mass,” Cevallos said. “There are special mass services the day of and around [Día de los Muertos]… to honor the memory and provide that space for reconnecting and thinking about our deceased.”