Ortiz: Stop misinterpreting Día de los Muertos

Kenia Ortiz

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Día de los Muertos is a holiday, originating from Mexico, that’s celebrated throughout Latin communities where families honor the dead. However, in the United States, Día de los Muertos is generalized and portrayed as a holiday Mexicans use as an excuse to party and get drunk.

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There are many issues with the way America views the holiday. First, Mexican families aren’t the only ones that celebrate Día de los Muertos — it’s a holiday celebrated in other Latin countries such as Guatemala and Brazil. On Nov. 1 and 2, families believe that the passageway between the dead and the living is opened so that deceased family members and loved ones can visit.

On these days, people go to cemeteries to decorate loved ones’ graves with flowers, candles and food. Families make deceased loved ones’ favorite dishes and play their favorite songs to honor them and keep their memory alive.

In addition, ofrendas are set up with pictures of deceased loved ones and offerings. Offerings often include the dead’s favorite food, drink, sugar skulls, marigold flowers/petals and the traditional sugar pastry, pan de muerto. Extra offerings can depend on the person; young children sometimes leave their toys on the ofrenda as an offering to their passed loved ones. The ofrenda is not an altar of worship or morbidity; it’s an offer of love.

Families and friends do not get together to pull out photo albums, make food, buy drinks, visit cemeteries and decorate graves just for others to find the holiday exotic and trendy.”

Día de los Muertos is important because it serves as a time for people to remember and celebrate their dead loved ones, but also to overcome the fear of death. We are all human, and we know that death will come to us all, but on this holiday, death is not feared. Death is seen as only a transition to a new life, and it gives families hope that even though their loved one’s life is over on Earth, they are somewhere else very much alive.

It gives us hope that we will see our loved ones again.

This holiday means so much to thousands of people — it means so much to me — and it’s disheartening to see it being commercialized and fetishized by media. Many in the Colorado State University community are upset with the misrepresentation.

“I think that, for some people, it’s ‘another Mexican party’ that is colorful and happy and all of that,” said Génesis Góngora, a residence director at CSU. “When in reality, yes it’s colorful, but if you go to the origins, the most current Día de los Muertos celebration is a mixture of Indigenous culture with Catholicism because of colonization. Where is the fun in that?” 

a decorated skull on an alter for dia de los muertos
A colorfully decorated skull lays atop an altar in El Centro inside the Lory Student Center. The altar was set up in celebration of Día de los Muertos, meaning Day of the Dead in English. The Mexican holiday begins Oct. 31 and lasts until Nov. 2, where it is believed that the spirits of those who have passed away are able to revisit their families and friends. (Brooke Buchan | Collegian)

Since Día de los Muertos is right after Halloween, people continue to dress as calaveras and Catrina.

Calaveras are sugar skulls decorated on Day of the Dead to celebrate loved ones. Unlike Halloween, it’s not a symbol of fear; it’s a symbol of respect for family and life.

The Catrina’s origin can be traced back to the Aztecs. They believed in a goddess of death that was said to protect and guide their dead loved ones. In the 1900s, artist Jose Guadalupe Posada drew a female skeleton with the fancy hat, bright makeup and fancy dress we have come to recognize today.

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Posada knew Mexicans had aspirations to look wealthy like the Europeans did at that time, so he drew this to remind people that it didn’t matter what economic status one belonged to or what color their skin was. At the end of the day, we are all destined to the same end.

“This year, because it was Latinx Heritage Month, one of my students and I kinda decided to put an altar in the building to educate our residents and have a passive program,” Góngora said. “I thought that I wasn’t going to find anything here in Fort Collins to represent it, and I actually did. … Part of me felt happy to find things that were similar to what I grew up with, but at the same time, some of what they were selling was stereotypical like skulls with sombreros or like calaveras partying. And while it is indeed a happy celebration, based on our culture, like the majority of things are, it’s also a sacred one in which we respect the death, and we do believe that our loved ones come to visit us.”

Día de los Muertos is not edgy or cool. It’s a sacred holiday, and purchasing costumes of Catrina, buying calavera makeup that’s “just for fun” and referring to this holiday as morbid or “culty” is disrespectful.

Families and friends do not get together to pull out photo albums, make food, buy drinks, visit cemeteries and decorate graves just for others to find the holiday exotic and trendy.

It’s a holiday rooted in respect, love and memory. Respect this holiday and the meaning it has to so many people.

Kenia Ortiz can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @Kenia_Ortiz_.