As Día de los Muertos has grown in popularity in the United States, so have the misconceptions surrounding it.
In researching the most common falsities associated with Muertos, we were a bit overwhelmed. There were too many! We’re going to try to clarify a few, and hopefully provide some helpful information for those seeking to learn more about this very special Mexican holiday.
• Muertos Does Not Celebrate Death
Before European contact, death for the Mexica and other Indigenous Peoples was not seen as final. Death was the place of silence, of regeneration; it was a natural part of life.
Because Día de los Muertos uses skulls and skeletons as symbols; and because, of course, it’s called Day of the Dead in English, the assumption by many is that it celebrates death. It really celebrates the lives of our ancestors and deceased loved ones.
• Muertos Is Not Mexican Halloween
There’s no such thing as “Mexican Halloween.” Halloween and Muertos are two completely separate things that aside from proximity in date, have really nothing to do with each other.
A traditional Muertos celebration includes offerings of food (pan de muerto, mole, etc.), water, tobacco, fruit, sweets (sugar skulls) and alcohol (depending on the deceased).
Blood, ghoul, spiders and spider webs, and Halloween motifs are not traditional elements of a Muertos celebration.
• Muertos Is Not Latino
Most serious scholars and news outlets refer to Muertos as Mexican Day of the Dead. However, several make the mistake of calling it a Latin American holiday; some even claim it originated in Spain.
Yes, Día de los Muertos is celebrated on the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but let us not confuse the traditional with the colonized.
Long before our ancestors ever heard the words “Día de los Fieles Difuntos” and were forced to follow the Catholic calendar, they were following their own calendar, both solar and ceremonial, and were honoring their deceased in months long festivals.
The fact that today we celebrate Día de los Muertos on November 1 and 2 — the same days many others honor their dead — is a result of colonization, not a choice our ancestors made freely.
Nevertheless, the essence of Muertos is directly tied to the ancient ways of our ancestors. Whether it’s sugar skulls, papel picado, pan de muerto, cempasúchil, and even “La Catrina,” — all which are uniquely Mexican — Muertos is an affirmation of our Indigenous heritage. Calling it a Latin American holiday is simply inaccurate.
• Muertos Is Mexican
Día de los Muertos, or Día de Muertos, as it’s more commonly known in Mexico, is an Indigenous Mexican holiday that traces its origins to two 20-day festivals that were once a part of the Mexica (Aztec) ceremonial calendar.
The first, Miccailhuitontli, which means Feast to the Revered Deceased, is believed to have been celebrated between present day July 12 and July 31. It honored deceased children.
The second 20-day festival, Huey Miccailhuitontli, or Feast to the Greatly Revered Deceased, was likely celebrated from present day August 1 to August 20. This festival honored deceased adults.
In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed Mexico’s “Indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
• Muertos Is Revolutionary
Artist José Guadalupe Posada’s famous Calavera Garbancera, more commonly known as “La Catrina,” was made in protest of the Porfiriato, the regime of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, whose repressive ways led to the Mexican Revolution. Posada was mocking Mexicans who like Díaz shunned their own Indianness for the Victorian styles of the day.
Eventually, Díaz was exiled to France and the demands of Zapata and Villa were incorporated into the Mexican Constitution.
• Correct DDLM Terminology
Día de los Muertos, Día de Muertos, Fiesta de Muertos, or simply Muertos, are all correct terms.
NOTE: The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Peru, Chile, Haiti and a few other countries. It’s definitely not “just a Mexican” thing.