Dia de los Muertos: What is it, who celebrates it, and how can you be a part of it?

By: Alexa Ramirez

Over 345,000 people all over the state of Minnesota identify as Hispanic or Latino, and within that community, many people are preparing for the holiday, Día de los Muertos. Here at Highland Park High School, the Union Latina club hosted an event to celebrate and educate students about the holiday, in the gym, where students of any class could come down (with teachers’ permission), learn about Día de los Muertos and immerse themselves in some of the typical activities that people take part in during this holiday. But let’s talk about some key information first: What is it? Where does it come from? Who celebrates it? Let’s see!

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday that takes place from October 31 through November 2. The belief around the holiday is that on those days you welcome back deceased relatives to be reunited with them and celebrate their lives with food, drink and celebration. According to tradition, the gates of heaven are opened on October 31 for the spirits of deceased children to rejoin their families for 24 hours.

This works the same way for the spirits of deceased adults on November 1 and 2. The holiday is a blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture and goes back some 3,000 years, originally being celebrated in Mexico by Aztecs, Nahuatl people and many other indigenous tribes who lived by the belief that death is an integral, and present part of life, that is meant to be acknowledged and not feared. It’s still celebrated in Mexico today and in other countries like Spain, Brazil, Guatemala, and many more. It is a way we show our deceased family that they are still with us and that they are not forgotten.

Contrary to popular belief, Día de los Muertos is not another form of Halloween. Though they share a date and people dress up and celebrate for both, they are very different holidays. On the Day of the Dead, it is believed that the border between the spiritual and living world dissolves, and during that period, the souls of the dead return to the living world to visit the living. When they do, they’re greeted with feasts, drinks, dances and music that they enjoy with their loved ones. They are treated as guests and are met with their favorite foods, things that cater to their interests, and other offerings all laid out on an ofrenda. Ofrendas are typically built at gravesites or in people’s homes and are decorated with candles, flowers called cempasúchil, food, photos of their deceased loved ones and any other items they deem fitting to add.

At Highland, many students (myself included) celebrate this holiday and want to share it with those at the school, which we did through the Union Latina club, where we put on an event in the field house, at the school, where students could come and learn about Día de los Muertos.

We had many different stations with activities for visitors to do. There was a coloring station where students could color in drawings from famous movies that feature Day of the Dead; a photo booth where they could try on traditional Mexican dresses, hats and decorated skeleton masks and take photos in them; and a face paint table where students got their faces painted with skeleton features in black and white or in colorful and decorative styles (whichever they preferred), which is something very common in Day of the Dead festivals and other celebrations.

Students could also visit the ofrenda that the club put together with decorative flowers, candles, and a bread that’s commonly used to decorate or to consume during Día de los Muertos called Pan de Muertos. The ofrenda had photos to celebrate those who have passed and have been important to the community here in our Saint Paul Public Schools, like Paul Wellstone and Philando Castile, as well as some passed Hispanic historical figures like Selena.

Along with these activities, we had some interactive activities like musical chairs and a group dance called el Caballo Dorado (the Golden Horse) which is a common Mexican line dance that we taught to the students and all danced together. This event was a huge success! Many classes showed up to learn, celebrate and enjoy this holiday together.

Aztec dance being performed by members of the Union Latina
The Ofrenda set up by members of the Unión Latina
Paper flower making during the Dia de los Muertos celebration
Unión Latina club during the Dia de los Muertos celebration

This event is an annual one that ULA puts on along with many others, and is an excellent way to immerse yourself in Latino culture by learning about one of its most cherished holidays right here at Highland.

Image taken from: https://www.imdb.com/title/

More ways you can learn about Dia de los Muertos are by reading about it in books like ‘Ghosts’ by Raina Telgemaier or ‘Day of the Dead in the USA’ by Regina M. Marchi, it’s also featured in popular movies like ‘Coco’ and celebrated locally at events like the Dia de los Muertos festival in Minneapolis on November 5, and the Dia de los Muertos Fiesta at the Midtown market, also in Minneapolis.

Dia de los Muertos is one of the many Hispanic holidays that surround us here in MN with so many Hispanic and Latino people all around, and getting involved in it is an excellent way to learn and experience a new culture and enrich your life.

Image taken from: https://goraina.com/ghosts

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