Dia de las Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrates life and death; revelers remember people - family, friends, inspirations, or mentors - who have died, yet whose impact on their lives remains eternal. Dia de las Muertos originated in syncretism-the combining of Central America and its various cultures with Catholic traditions brought by the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Ancient civilizations such as the Teotihuacáns, Olmecs, and Aztecs honored the dead through rituals and remembrances. The traditions of indigenous peoples did not disappear with colonization but found their way into Spanish and Catholic festivals, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, to create new rituals and expressions of worship.
Dia de las Muertos celebrates life and death as synonymous with each other; this is the basis for its expression in art, music, and ritual. The celebration lasts from October 31st to the 2nd or 3rd of November. In addition, where possible, families often visit the cemeteries where those they honor are buried and clean, repair, and decorate the grave site. They will also leave gifts and mementos-items that the person loved and enjoyed in life. A part of Dia de las Muertos is the return of the dead for the night to visit with their families and homes. As part of remembering, families make an offering, an ofrenda, with pictures of the dead, art, candles, food, marigold flowers, and calaveras. Marigold flowers provide trails to the ofrendas, so the deceased find their destinations. Calaveras, skeletons, represent the continuance of life, which is why they are depicted doing everyday activities. Seeing the calaveras engaged in daily activities helps people overcome their own fear of death.
The celebration of Dia de las Muertos is over three thousand years old. When the Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire in the 1500s, the Catholic missionaries assimilated the native holiday into the Catholic celebration of All Souls Day, November 1st. A couple of hundred years later, as the United States expanded westward across North America and occupied Mexican land, Anglo-American settlers culturally dominated the territories they settled. The celebration of Dia de las Muertos slowed in the Southwest until the 1970s when the Chicano Movement introduced Dia de las Muertos more broadly.
Mexican-Americans sought greater social, political, and economic rights through the Chicano Movement. This civil rights struggle developed in the 1960s and 1970s but dated earlier in the twentieth century. For instance, in 1946, five Mexican-American fathers sued the Westminster School District over segregating children of Mexican ancestry into separate schools. In 1947 the United States Supreme court ruled in favor of the fathers, prohibiting segregation of Mexican-American school children in an important precedent for the Brown v. Board of Education decision seven years later. The activism of Mexican-Americans saw the success of educational reforms, labor unions, and the creation of the first organization to protect the civil rights of Hispanics, the Mexican American Legal Defence and Education Fund, in 1968. From such grassroots and legal activism, the Chicano Movement emerged more radically during the 1960s and 70s.
Chicanos sought a rediscovery of their cultural roots and indigenous distinctiveness; therefore, they explored and revitalized the traditions of their ancestors. As the awareness and knowledge of Dia de las Muertos grew, more and more people beyond the Hispanic community joined in the celebrations, especially in the southwestern United States. The rising number of Mexican immigrants in the 1980s also increased the number of people participating in Dia de las Muertos. A new art representative of Day of the Dead emerged alongside the integration of Mariachi bands. Ofrendas are made not only as an offering but as artistic expressions and not only for the family but for cultural icons as well: Frieda Kahlo and Marilyn Monroe are, for instance, well represented.
As the festival took on new meaning and was widely adopted, the Desert Botanical Garden celebrated its first Dia de las Muertos in 2002. Mexican artist and photographer Oliverio Balcells has been coming to the Desert Botanical Garden for Dia de las Muertos since 2004. When he first attended Dia de las Muertos at the Garden, he was one of a small handful of Hispanic artists. In 2019 the number of artists and performers participating in the Gardens’ celebration far exceeded the 2002 celebrations, but with size comes sacrifice. Mr. Balcells says the celebration is more commercialized than traditional Mexican events. However, the Garden’s festival is still a fantastic event to attend. The DBG brings people across the nation to experience Dia de las Muertos. The different vendors involved allow visitors to receive a taste of the traditional Mexican holiday. The performers, artists, and expositions the Garden hosts offer an excellent introduction to a cultural foundation. In Webster Auditorium, artistic ofrendas are showcased for visitors. Mariachi groups perform along with storytellers and traditional dancers. A wide variety of foods is served, both traditional Mexican and food representative of Dia de las Muertos such as Pan de Muertos and sugar skulls.
The last day of the Garden’s celebration hosts the closing ceremony of the holiday. In the days leading up to the holiday, visitors are encouraged to write short messages and wishes and leave them in baskets by the Garden’s ofrendas in the Sunset Plaza. In the closing ceremony on November 3rd, the notes are burned in a bonfire, representing them being given into the afterlife. Calaveras dancers move across the plaza along with other traditional dancers, and men in Aztec Jaguar warrior outfits carry a wood and fabric representation of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, aloft. Sacred to Native tribes in Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl represents duality, able to fly yet bound to the earth. Quetzalcoatl’s duality mixes with the duality of Dia de las Muertos, the celebration of life and death.