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Dia de los muertos
Día de Los Muertos across the Americas
October 27, 2020

This year this holiday has a significant weight for many of us as we remember in love and in rage, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s failed handling of it. The continued murders of Black and Brown people by the police, and the ongoing pandemic of murders of trans people, 30 counted in the U.S. so far this year, making it the deadliest since records began and affecting Black trans women disproportionately.

Día de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a holiday observed and celebrated across Latin America.

The dates coincide with the Catholic holidays of “Dia de Todos los Santos” or All Saints Day on November 1st and “Dia de los Fieles Difuntos,” or All Soul’s Day on November 2. Traditions vary from country to country and region to region and can be traced back to the resistance of indigenous and African traditions in spite of Catholic doctrine.

This year this holiday has a significant weight for many of us as we remember in love and in rage, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s failed handling of it. The continued murders of Black and Brown people by the police, and the ongoing pandemic of murders of trans people, 30 counted in the U.S. so far this year, making it the deadliest since records began and affecting Black trans women disproportionately.  

As part of commemorating Día de Los Muertos, I spoke to a few Latinx activists and creatives about their personal and family traditions around this day. In the process, it got me to think about how being in the diaspora has disconnected so many of us from these customs and the ways in which we purposely connect despite distance and time. 

“Growing up, Día de Los Muertos always felt eerily still,” says Catherine Feliz, a Dominican artist and Afrotaine healer. “Almost like the walls were packed with the ghosts of ancestors and we didn't want to bump them.” They say that their family rituals were pretty simple; laying out a single white candle and a glass of water on the altar. Back on the island though, Catherine shared, it's customary for folks to visit the gravesites of ancestors and leave the offerings of candlelight, prayers, and flowers for them.

For Itzamna Huerta, web designer and photographer born to Mexican parents, learning about her family’s traditions for el Día de los Muertos is recent. In the past few months since she relocated her life to Mexico, she’s gotten to connect with her extended family. “I learned that my mom always made an offering, an altar since she was young,” she says, it’s not something that she really grew up with, but coming to Mexico has exposed her to more of the traditions especially around el Día de los Muertos. 

Recently she visited Izocal in Hidalgo, in which she learned that some regions even have different names for this celebration. The one in Hidalgo is called Xantolo, a word which has an origin of being meshed to Nahuatl, as an adaptation of the Latin phrase festiumominum sanctorum, or “feast of all saints”. 

“Usually in Xantolo, men dress as women and dance with the spirits.” Itzamna says that after a while they recognized that the tradition was dying out so the women in the community took it upon themselves to organize a year where the women started dancing as well. “This week I’m going to my grandparent’s neighborhood,” she says, she’ll be making her own altar with them too. 

“In the land of the Miskitos, Garífuna, Dirianes and thousands more Indigenous communities (which includes Black Indigenous people), colonial borders that make up Nicaragua,” says sacuanjotx, a Black Nicaragüense trans nonbinary babe living on Turtle Island, “así es como se celebra los Días lxs Muertxs.” They say that they are days full of joy and reverence for their ancestors. Most people prepare altars and ofrendas in their home on the first day, shares sacuanjotx, arranging them with flowers like sacuanjoche, bread, fruits, sweets, and photos of the deceased. 

“In the evening, special long-lasting velas are lit, and families gather to look over photos and share stories and memories about their ancestors. Religious practitioners may also dedicate una misa o culto to their ancestors,” sacuanjotx continues, families spend time meticulously cleaning and sprucing tombstones and crypts in the cemetery, scrubbing and repainting them bright colors. 

“The second day is filled with celebration as families gather to decorate ancestral burial grounds with flowers and enjoy comida típica like buñuelos (yucca flour donuts) y sopa borracha (rum cake made with Nicaraguan rum),” they say. Finally, shares sancuajotx, as music serenades the graves, families spend the day with their ancestors, honoring their lives and memories through song, stories, food, flowers, and prayer.

Food is a huge and crucial part of Día de los Muertos across the Americas, not only ensuring that those of us still here are fed, but also as a way to honor our loved ones and their spirits that make their way back for this celebration.

“Growing up I can think of my mom making this dish, with a vegetable called ayote, a type of squash that gets candied with panela which is so good,” says Kelly Ortiz, a multimedia writer, digital, and social media specialist born in Los Angeles. She tells me that everytime she reflects on this day she thinks about that dish, which her mom would make around this time. 

“Día de los Muertos in my home has always been personal and intimate,” she says. “Something that I like to do now, is I call my mom and just listen to her talk about life before the civil war in El Salvador.” 

Kelly feels that having this conversation in itself needs its own commemoration, because it’s something that is still in the margins. She tries to be intentional about listening, and preserving the memories about what it was like for her mom growing up and just living life before the war. “That’s also how I commemorate the family members and friends of my mom that I didn't get to meet. Whether it is because they died before the war or during.” 

She also celebrates this day through action and intention; expressing gratitude for her mother’s bravery and strength in coming to the U.S., taking time to educate herself and stay connected to the current issues in El Salvador and how she can become more involved.

La Fête de Guédés, Fête Gede, or “Festival of the Dead,” is also one of the most important celebrations in the Voodoo religious calendar. Djino Timotis, a DJ and art historian living in New Jersey shared that it is Haitian tradition to celebrate the dead on November 1st and 2nd. Though it is connected to these Catholic holidays, Fête Gede can be more accurately connected to African traditions preserved through the centuries.

“We pay homage to spirits (saints) and commemorate the dead,” says Djino.

In Haiti, the Guédé are the family of Loa, or spirits that represent death. In churches all over the country, there is music, dancing, feasting and celebration with the purpose of raising the dead. 

As in many of the other places, in Perú there are several regional differences and peculiarities. I spoke to my grandmother, Eunice about the traditions specific to her hometown of Chota, Cajamarca. A city that lays in a valley in the Northern Andean mountains of Peru. 

“It is customary to sell dough dolls called ‘bollos’,” she says, “Each girl in town attaches hands on the bollo with thread and a needle, because the hands are made separately.” She remembers dressing up her bollo and parading it around the street with the other girls.

In Chota, everyone goes to the cemetery carrying their floral offerings and wreaths, while graves are washed and scrubbed. Families come to pray, drink and eat the favorite food of their deceased loved ones, and bring some for them to have as well. The children then set their bollos as an offering at the site of the dead’s graves.  

“I would let my bollo get dry, until an animal came over and ate it,” laughs my grandmother. 

Across North, Central, South America and the Caribbean, Día de los Muertos has a special collective and personal significance. While it’s a celebration for those of our loved ones who have passed, it’s also a moment to be present with those of us that are here. 

As we continue to fight for a more just world, free of the violence that may have taken our family members and loved ones; the portal that opens up to connect the worlds of the dead and the living on this day must remain in our intentions and our everyday. In this way, we honor those that came before us, and whose paths we continue to walk on and build onto. 

This ofrenda (or offering) is part of a series that describes in more detail the traditions of Día de los Muertos. In 2020, we hope that everyone who comes to honor their ancestors and to celebrate life takes that energy and channels it into deep and long-term organizing. Join us in taking the immediate step of voting out Trump - the biggest threat we face to our ability to thrive as a comunidad.

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Paid for by Mijente PAC, 734 W Polk St., Phoenix, AZ 85007, not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.