Anyone who has seen the Pixar movie “Coco” can visualize the vibrancy of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, with its yellow marigolds and sparkling candlelight. The day is held in conjunction with All Souls’ Day, on Nov. 2, but can also be a multi-day festival stretching from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.
Marcos Vasquez, 41, a resident of Uvalde, has been celebrating the holiday for five years. To participate, he builds an altar in his house peopled with photographs of loved ones who have died to whom he hopes to connect.
The altar, he says, gives the loved ones a path to come visit. Called an “ofrenda,” or offering, the altar has seven steps which each represent a different element.
At the top level is an image of a saint that the honored loved one venerated in life, and also an arch of marigolds – the traditional flower of the dead. The arch is to allow the spirits of the remembered loved ones to go back to their resting place after the visit.
Other steps of the altar include photographs of loved ones, along with personal items that they had owned. Vasquez included a harmonica from his father and a pocket knife from his grandfather.
Other essential elements of the remembrance altar are candles, which act like a guide for loved ones’ spirits, and a dog to act as protection.
“You always want to keep a dog, like a guard dog,” Vasquez said. “That only allows those certain individuals that you’re honoring to visit you.”
Vasquez puts his altar together on Nov. 1 in order to have everything ready by midnight. He then leaves it up until the evening of Nov. 3.
Nov. 2 is usually spent as a feast day, eating favorite foods that the loved ones enjoyed during their lifetimes.
Other aspects of the holiday include taking flowers and other mementos to the graves of loved ones, praying for their souls and using skeletons as reminders of mortality.
Because of the holiday’s personal, familial nature, Vasquez looks forward to the Mexican celebration more than Halloween.
“Like Halloween, I think Dia de los Muertos should be celebrated equally,” he said. “Dia de los Muertos is a day where we can honor those that have come before us and have gone to their eternal rest.”
Key to the celebration is the remembrance of one’s ancestors and friends.
“To me, it means celebrating the lives of the people that come before you,” Vasquez said. “It’s not necessarily a day of mourning. It’s about reliving their lives, what they were about, what marks they left on you.
“You don’t want to forget your family members – you want to remember where you came from, why you’re here. They put you here; they taught you what you know.”
Vasquez says it is important for parents to teach their children about the holiday so that they will know about their ancestors and will one day remember their own parents.
He also says that, though the celebration is traditionally Mexican, belonging to a particular ethnicity should not preclude others from joining in.
“I don’t think there’s a race or a religion you have to be in in order to honor someone that has passed,” he said.
The celebration of Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, dates back to pre-Columbian times in Mexico.
Early Mexican cultures, such as the Aztec, held a certain reverence for death. The Aztecs would hold a festival honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, or “Lady of the Dead,” who was queen of the underworld.
Some believe that the modern Day of the Dead celebrations syncretize – or try to bring into harmony – both pagan beliefs and Christianity. This can be seen in adherents to the holiday flocking to grave sites to pray for friends and family who have died.
Another syncretism can be seen in the time of year in which the festival is held. While it was once celebrated at the beginning of the summer, the festival is now at the end of October and coincides with Christianity’s celebrations of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Having begun in central and southern Mexico, the Day of the Dead tradition did not reach prominence in northern Mexico until the 20th century. Since that time, the Mexican government has made it a national holiday in order to instill a sense of national pride in its citizens