Celebrating the Dead – “Dia de los Muertos”

1 and 2 November are holidays across most, if not all, of Latin America. The reason is the celebration of “El Día de Los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead). The origin of the celebration is Mexican, or more specifically Aztec and the celebrations consist of gatherings of friends and family to pray for and remember loved ones who have died. The original Aztec ritual, which apparently dates back more than 3000 years, used to fall in the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, but in attempt to convert the indigenous culture in Mexico to Catholicism, the Spanish moved the celebration to the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Days. This is just one of many examples of how local cultures across Latin America, and especially in Mexico, managed to maintain their traditions and beliefs even in the face of a very strong-willed Catholic Church.

This holiday is also observed here in Chile, although not as strongly as in Mexico. This year we were lucky enough to celebrate the day with Javier (Rodrigo`s brother) and his wife Adriana who is Mexican. Along with their neighbours in the Ecological Community where they live (more on this in another post coming soon), they decided to celebrate the day in true Mexican tradition. It was a colourful and very interesting day, best shown through some photos.

Traditions include building private altars honouring the deceased. These altars include photos and possessions of the loved ones who have died. The sepia photo in the middle of the altar is Emiliano Zapata, one of the most important military leaders during the Mexican Revolution.

 The photo in the black frame is of Rodrigo`s maternal grandparents. His grandmother was from Ireland (Callaghan). Tucked under the corner of the photo is the blessing from my grandmother`s funeral who died in 2002. I was not able to go to the funeral in Ireland, but my mom gave me this blessing with my Gran`s photo and I have carried it with me in my purse ever since. It felt very special to be able to put the photo on the altar and remember my dearest Nannah.


This is the spanish name for skulls or figures of skeletons which are traditionally displayed during the Day of the Dead. Although the calacas are symbols of the dead, they are generally depicted as joyful rather than mournful figures and are shown with festive clothes and playing musical instruments to indicate a happy afterlife. Apparently (according to Wikipedia) this is part of the Mexican belief that no dead soul likes to be thought of sadly and that death should be a joyous occasion.

The altar also includes various food offerings as well as water for the souls of the deceased.

Sugar calacas

Javier had told us that the celebration was going to be very colourful and so we decided to bring a bit of Africa to the day.

Adriana, in traditional Mexican clothes putting the final touches on the altar.

I have no clue what Pablo (Rodrigo`s nephew) and his friend Dante were talking about, but I think Pablo was trying to explain something about the altar. It seemed a very serious conversation!

No event in Latin America is complete without music and since this day was all about Mexico, there was a Mariachi Band playing. The music is folklore from Mexico. I just loved the main singer`s sombrero.

A resident of the community provided music throughout the afternoon. In this photo Rodrigo is accompanying him on the drum and Manuel (founder of the ecological community many years ago) is on the shakers.

As with the music, food is a vital part of the celebration. Yummy, but rather messy tortillas filled with a variety of bean dishes, guacamole of course and lots of other yummy foods which were a mixture of Chile and Mexico.

All in all a very colourful and lovely celebration! Thank you so much to Adriana and Javier for sharing this special occasion from Mexico with us.

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One Response to Celebrating the Dead – “Dia de los Muertos”

  1. linda koch says:

    It was wonderful to see Nannah included in this special celebration. This was also a very “serious” holy day at home in Ireland. I can remember us all having to go to church with Mum to remember friends or relatives who had died. Thankfully we were still quite young and at that point in time our happy lives had not been touched by sadness of death, so to be honest we truly did not properly understand the day’s meaning. Obviously as we got older ( and perhaps wiser) the day takes on a different significance. Chat soon.

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