Americans will celebrate Halloween on October 31, a tradition that dates to an ancient Celtic festival in which it was believed the dead would return to haunt the living. Chances are, many of today’s trick-or-treaters will paint their faces like skulls, borrowing from an ancient Aztec tradition falling at the same time: Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead.
Once little-known in the U.S., it has spread from Mexico and Central America, inserting itself into Halloween. It has become big business in America: retail chains sell Day of the Dead costumes, sugar skulls and decorative items — even keychains and ashtrays. The U.S. toymaker Mattel recently launched a Day of the Dead Barbie doll; Nike has unveiled a Day of the Dead-themed athletic shoe, an update of the so-called “Cortez” model, ironically named for the very conquistador who brought down the Aztec Empire, Hernan Cortes.
“Mainstream culture, they think the Day of the Dead is just about sugar skulls and marigolds,” said Ixtlixochitl Salinas-White Hawk, a member of Mexico’s largest indigenous group, the Nahua-Mexika (Aztec), who now lives in Seattle, Washington.
She takes exception to the fact that big business and non-indigenous people have appropriated the celebration.
“They try to pull the look without really understanding the significance and the medicine and the spirituality behind it,” she said. “They need to take the dollar sign out of it.”
Melding of religions
Festivals honoring the dead date back at least to the Aztecs, who devoted a month at the end of the growing season to festivals honoring Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead,” who with her husband Miclantecuhtl, guarded the underworld. In a series of festivals, Aztecs reenacted religious myths and made offerings of food, drink and flowers to the dead. Often, these celebrations involved human sacrifices, to the horror of Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic Church.
Spain toppled the Aztec Empire in 1521 but had a harder time crushing Aztec spiritual tradition. Gradually, indigenous spirituality and Catholicism merged: Christian churches were built on the sites of former temples, and festivals were reborn as Christian holy days.
“They knew that they were not going to be able to make the people not celebrate our ancestors,” said White Hawk, “so they passed it on to All Saint’s and All Soul’s Day.”
She refers to the Christian holidays that fall on the first two days of November, one honoring deceased Catholic Saints and the other remembering the dead.
Today, Day of the Dead is three-day celebration, beginning October 31 and running through November 2. These are days dedicated to honoring generations of ancestors.
“We are not here just on our own,” said White Hawk. “We are here because our ancestors lived through hardships and struggles and gave their love for us to be here. So, we celebrate them as a way of thanking them.”
Though individual traditions vary by region, even family, most involve ofrendas, altars set up in homes or at gravesites. Families decorate them with photographs of the dead, candles, food offerings of traditional pan de muerto, a sweet bread, sugar skull confections and cempasuchitl, large yellow or gold marigold flowers believed to help the spirits of the dead return, however briefly, to sit with their descendants.
“We understand that death is part of a continuing cycle, so it doesn’t have to be sad,” she said. “There is understanding that our ancestors walk with us, so we sit with them, fix their favorite meal, their favorite drink, share stories. It’s about celebrating the life of the person, not mourning their loss.”
Today, indigenous diaspora communities in cities across America host Day of the Dead parades, street festivals and candlelit processions to cemeteries.
White Hawk is a member of Tloke Nahuake, “together and united,” a dance group founded by her father Juan Salinas, who for decades has toured America to share Aztec culture through dance. The family has participated in Day of the Dead celebrations in Seattle for years, bringing in representatives from different communities in Mexico to share the tradition with the public.
“There are stories that go with the dances, which are really prayers,” she said. “Every step has meaning; every beat has meaning. They are an expression of who we are — not who we are in that moment, but everything our ancestors did to get us to that moment.”
Dancers create their own regalia, which feature large, colorful headdresses made up of the feathers of the parrots and other birds.
“Every feather has its own meaning,” said White Hawk, explaining they sometimes dance for an exhausting seven or eight hours at a stretch.
“It’s a small sacrifice to pay for our ancestors. We are here because our ancestors lived through hardship and struggle and gave their love for us to be here. And we are also responsible to pass our culture on to the next generations.”
She understands why non-indigenous people are tempted to co-opt the imagery of the Day of the Dead.
“I appreciate that everybody is on their own journey, trying to find their own place,” she said. “But I feel very protective of the knowledge and culture that has been entrusted to me. I realize how much responsibility that is. I don’t want it to get lost in someone else’s hands.”