Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday typically celebrated on November 1 and 2 that invites loved ones to gather in remembrance and honor those who have passed. The tradition originated roughly 3,000 years ago among the Aztecs, who believed that death is a natural part of life and should be honored and celebrated rather than mourned.
Those unfamiliar with this perspective may find the holiday to look and feel a little spooky, even similar to Halloween, until they uncover Día de los Muertos’ true deeper tone and meaning. It is meant to be a light-hearted, cheerful, and thoughtful tribute.
The Book of Life is a vibrant, animated movie released in 2014 that I recommend for children and adults alike. The story takes place in the little Mexican town of San Ángel and follows the main character, Manolo, on a journey into what is called the Land of the Remembered. A few years later in 2017, the animated movie Coco took the theme even deeper to capture the essence and raw emotion of the tradition.
Miguel, the main character, finds himself in the Land of the Dead to reunite with his great-grandfather for life lessons including the importance of family. My grandfather passed in December the year this movie was released, and I can tell you I cried my eyes out during the latter half of the film — but in a positive and cathartic way. Bringing these emotions to the surface is at the core of Día de los Muertos.
Fascinating Features of Día de los Muertos
• Ofrendas: Ofrendas are items placed on an altar constructed for loved ones who have passed as “offerings” to their spirits. Typically, the offerings comprise four elements: water, wind, earth, and fire. Water is represented by itself or another liquid to quench thirst. José Otoniel Vargas, a first-generation American and resident of Las Cruces, shared, “My aunts take Sprite to my cousins’ graves every year because that was their favorite drink.” Colorful cut paper banners, known as papel picado, represent wind. Earth is represented by food, most commonly bread. Candles are, of course, the fire element, often placed in the form of a cross to represent a compass helping to guide the spirits along their journeys.
• Humor: Bringing humor to the occasion helps solidify Día de los Muertos’ tradition as a light-hearted event. Skeleton figures are often depicted as having fun and even finding themselves in comical situations. A playful nature is also woven into the writing of calaveras, which in Spanish translates to “skull,” but are short, humorous poems that may be even a bit mischievous. “In my family, we would go around [the room] and everyone would say a memory of the loved one that has passed. It felt like I got to know them more and it made me feel like they were here with us laughing along at the memories,” says José.
• Marigolds: The flor de cempasúchil, or Mexican marigold, becomes intensely fragrant as it blooms beginning in early summer, with blooms lasting until late fall. This flower signifies the sun and the concept of rebirth. You will likely find them, along with their strong scent, sprinkled throughout Day of the Dead festivities, as Mexican folklore declares they also attract spirits.
• Sweet treats: Food is a common staple for special occasions and bringing folks together, and Day of the Dead is no different — even if the food is meant for the dead! Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is a delicious loaf of sweet bread, coated in sugar and decorated to resemble a heap of bones. You can also find wonderfully decorated sugar skulls (las dulces calaveras), with the two main ingredients being granulated sugar and meringue powder.
Day of the Dead Series – Las Cruces
Celebrate your loved ones with the annual fall Day of the Dead running event series. This year the event will be held on Saturday, October 29, and Sunday, October 30, when the average temperature will hit a comfortable 73 degrees. The series includes 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, and even 50K options. A couple of family-friendly aspects of the event are no time limits, walking participants are welcome, and the event continues until everyone crosses the finish line. Head over to La Llorona Park at the Picacho Avenue entrance for the start time of 7 a.m. on both days or opt for the early start at 6 a.m. For this one, you will have to leave your pooch at home for the safety and comfort of participants, but you are welcome to bring a stroller for your little ones. Details and registration are at deadrunning.net/day-of-the-dead-series.
Day of the Dead 1M, 5K, 10K – El Paso
El Paso follows suit with an annual Day of the Dead run, which is a great activity for all ages. This year’s runs are virtual and can be completed at any time in October or November 2022 and at any location. Participants can select the distance of their choice with 1 mile, 5K, and 10K lengths offered. The organizers of this event donate at least 15 percent of every registration to the National Military Family Association. Upon completion of the race, all participants receive a commemorative medal.
Altars on the Mesilla Plaza
In my little hometown of historic Old Mesilla, you can experience the annual Day of the Dead celebration hosted right in the center of the plaza square. Traditional celebratory events include candlelight processions, displays of homemade altars (you can create your own to celebrate your loved ones), music, food, and even a giant piñata to close out the occasion. The event is coordinated by the nonprofit Calavera Coalition and takes place on the weekend closest to the Day of the Dead, this year October 29 and 30.
Día de Los Muertos Art Festival in Deming
Although Deming is best known for its Great American Duck Race, a colorful art festival is held yearly at the Luna County Courthouse Park in celebration of the Day of the Dead. Visitors get into the spirit with traditions rooted in Mexico such as mariachi music, food, and folklórico dancing. The main attraction is abundant opportunity to explore your artistic side, such as crafting paper marigolds, creating your own ofrenda, costume contests, face painting, and sugar skull creations.
José sums up the meaning behind this beautiful and fascinating holiday by expressing that “it gives us the ability to remain close to those that have passed and bring those of us still alive closer by hearing stories about our family.” Being intentional by celebrating the life you live is incredibly empowering and would make our loved ones — past, present, and future — proud!
Story and photography by Desiree Bustamantes
Additional photos courtesy
Originally published in Neighbors magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com