Indiana Daily Student
Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Day of the Dead pays tribute to lost loved ones

by Patrice Worthy
Indiana Daily Student

Celebrations with dancing, praying and the decorating of graves are taking place all over Mexico and Central America today in honor of el Dia de Los Muertos. Originally an Aztec holiday, the Day of the Dead is celebrated Nov. 2 each year to remember and honor deceased family members and friends. Gamma Phi Omega and Latinos Unidos will hold a Day of the Dead ritual from 4 to 6 p.m. tonight at the Latino Cultural Center, La Casa . The event is open to anyone wanting to remember their lost relatives or learn more about the cultural holiday.

"It is a celebration of life and memories left behind; it's not morbid. It's nothing close to Halloween," said Juliana Hallows, administrative assistant of La Casa. "I think it's very important. It reminds people that we're human and we do pass on."

During the celebration, families gather at the graves of the dead and decorate them with marigolds. Later they eat while they tell stories about loved ones who have passed.

Antonio de la Cova, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Latino Studies, said when the Spaniards, or conquistadors, took over Mexico, they tried to abolish many of the Aztec culture rituals, including the Day of the Dead. The holiday was reinstated by Bishop Landa to coincide with the All Saints Day in the Catholic Church, which takes place Nov. 1. The most elaborate Dia de Los Muertos celebrations take place in Mexico, but celebrations can be found in regions of Central America and the United States.

"In Latin America, All Saints Day and Dia de Los Muertos are days of remembrance. Different countries have different practices on how to do it. The strongest tradition is still carried on in Mexico," de la Cova said.

De la Cova, who will also be giving a presentation at 7 p.m. at La Casa on the history and cultural significance of Dia de Los Muertos, said the holiday is rooted in the unanswered human question about what happens to us when we die.

"The ancient Mesoamerican civilizations -- the Aztecs -- they had a belief that the souls continue to exist after death and they went to a resting place after death called Mictlan, the land of the dead. They felt that once a year the souls of the dead would come back to visit their families," de la Cova said.

Latinos celebrating the day make traditional crafts, such as calaveras or skeletons resembling lost relatives. The skeleton is dressed up in clothing that reflects the relative's hobby or occupation. People celebrating also eat pan de muerto, a rich coffee cake decorated with bones, tamales, skull-shaped candies and marzipan bread death figures.

"It begins by creating an altar at home to remember dead relatives and friends. Then the altars are decorated with photographs of the deceased and a lot of marigold flowers. This is very significant. They also display food and drink," de la Cova said. "It is really a time of remembrance transforming grief into acceptance. They light a candle for each of the dead family members, and they always light an extra one so no one is left out."

La Casa will also have arts and crafts, pan de muerto and an altar. Sophomore Elizabeth Trevino, La Casa secretary, encouraged people to bring photos, candles, letters and poems to honor their deceased friends and family. There will be an informational video on Dia de Los Muertos that will help educate non-Latinos about the holiday.

"A lot of people think it is supposed to be scary," Trevino said. "We want them to know it's a day where we remember our loved ones who have passed."

Hallows said it is important for Latinos in college to participate in the ritual because it is a part of their culture and heritage. De la Cova thinks that since Latinos are the largest minority group in the U.S., understanding and celebrating the holiday on a college campus is very important.

"To Latinos, it is a cultural tradition. It's a tradition that their parents and family members still celebrate, and for Americans, they need to be aware of this Latino traditional belief that extends back centuries so they won't misinterpret this," de La Cova said. "They need to be aware of this tradition that is steeped in (Latinos') religious belief and very strong family values."

Trevino agreed and said the holiday is very important for the Latino community at IU because they are so far away from home.

"It reminds us of our families and what they do back home," she said. "It is a great way to keep the tradition going."

-- Contact arts editor Patrice Worthy at