Soon after arriving in San Diego, we took the trolley into Old Town San Diego and encountered posters and displays referring to Dia de los Muertos. We realized we had just missed the two-day observance of a holiday about which we knew . . . well, nothing.
So, our education began with the following information from a brochure available in the Visitors' Center and an article by Carlos Miller in the Arizona Republic.
More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. This ritual, which the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate, is known today as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed that during this time of the year, the boundaries that separate the living and the dead weaken and the deceased can visit the living. The natives viewed the next world as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.
The Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacri-legious. In their attempts to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual, but they were unsuccessful.
To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.
Skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Meso-Americans believed came back to visit during the (originally, month-long) ritual.
Today, in the United States and in Mexico's larger cities, families build altars in their homes, dedicating them to the dead. They place wooden skulls on altars and surround these altars with flowers, food and pictures of the deceased. They light candles and place them next to the altar.
The altar is usually three tiers and covered in colorful tissue paper. The first level of the altar has four candles placed at the Cardinal points (north, south, east, and west) to call spirits from all points. Two votive candles represent faith and hope.
Three skulls on the second level represent the Trinity.
On the third level, a large picture of our Lady Guadalupe, the mother of the Giver of Life, and the basic needs of life are displayed: water, salt, and bread. Also displayed in this area are favorite foods, sweets, drinks, and harvest fruits for each family spirit along with personal items of the deceased, such as toys, household saints, serapes, and gourds for carrying water. The fresh cut flowers symbolize the brevity of life.
In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults, celebrating the continuance of life and love for those who have gone before them.