Discussion with Mira Loma Spanish Honor Society
Dia de los Muertos has been celebrated every November for the past decade at Mira Loma. It’s one of our school’s most significant celebrations originally founded by the Spanish teacher, Señora Sanders. It first began as an exhibit in her room and then became a festival in the library. Eventually, the library couldn’t fit the festival upon which it was moved to the large cafeteria. The celebration continued to grow and grow, eventually becoming an integral part of Mira Loma’s culture. The festival is celebrated by students of all backgrounds and helps to educate the school community on one of Mexico’s biggest holidays.
For this year’s Dia de los Muertos article, I wanted to go more into the history of Dia de los Muertos itself. I interviewed Rishi Upadhyay, president of the Mira Loma Spanish Honor Society at Mira Loma and he helped me understand some of the traditions behind Dia de los Muertos as well as what the Spanish Honor Society did to celebrate this prominent holiday.
Lulu- Can you give me a brief summary of what Dia de Los Muertos is?
Rishi- Sure! So, Día de los Muertos is an annual holiday that lasts for two days, from November 1st to November 2nd. Overall, this holiday reunites the living and the dead, joining them together to have food, drink, and celebrate. Based on tradition, the gates of heaven are opened on October 31st at midnight so the spirits of the children can rejoin their families for exactly 24 hours, on November 1st. This also applies for adults, but on a different day: November 2nd. It’s believed that on these nights the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead are the thinnest.
Lulu- Where did it originate from?
Rishi- The origins of Día de los Muertos actually stretch back to approximately 3,000 years ago, in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs, who were living in Central Mexico at the time, saw death as an ubiquitous, or ever present, part of life. Here’s how the story goes: when one passed away, they would travel to Chicunamictlán, also called the Land of the Dead. The person would have to overcome a journey of several years through nine challenges, with the endpoint destination finally being Mictlán, which was where the dead were to rest. So, food and tools are provided by the living to help these deceased individuals in their difficult journey to finally be able to rest.
Lulu- How do the living entice the dead to return for a day?
Rishi- They leave ofrendas, or offerings on altars at home or their loved one’s graves. Altars are also called an ofrenda itself. Some of the things that are left on altars are the individual’s favorite food, water, spirits (of the alcoholic variety), marigolds, candles, or portraits of the individual. The food, water, and spirits are not only meant to entice the dead to return, but also to nourish the dead after their journey. Marigolds are left on altars because it is believed that their bright color and strong fragrance attract the dead. Candles are used to light the path to guide spirits home while portraits are left to call loved ones to the altar to cross over into the world of the living.
Lulu- I noticed quite a bit of talk about elements. What is that about?
Rishi- When families place items on ofrendas, it’s often in reference to the 4 elements of fire, water, earth, and air. Candles, along with lighting the way for the dead, represent fire while water is usually represented by water itself. Earth is represented by tapetes de arena, or sand sculptures which usually depict religious themes. The final element, air, is represented with papel picado, or perforated paper. It is believed that the holes in the paper are a way for souls to travel through to make their visit.
Lulu- Why are skulls such an emblematic feature of Dia de los Muertos?
Rishi- You can see skulls all throughout the celebration of Day of the Dead. They are present in the form of calaveras or sugar skulls which are typically skulls made out of sugar garnished with frosting. Calaveras represent the departed souls in the circle of life and are made to celebrate those who have passed. People also paint skulls on their faces using face paint to celebrate Day of the Dead and loved ones who have passed. The reason that skulls are featured so much in Dia de los Muertos is because in Mexican culture, skulls symbolize death and rebirth or life and afterlife.
Lulu- What kind of activities did the Mira Loma Spanish Honor Society plan for Dia de los Muertos?
Rishi – The Mira Loma Spanish Honor Society has actually planned numerous activities for Día de Los Muertos over the years, many of which I am fortunate to have been a part of. This year, our focus as Mira Loma Spanish Honor Society was educating the students and faculty alike about Día de Los Muertos; we recognized that the school community loves to engage with the activities that are set up, but to fully appreciate their value and significance, it’s important to understand the history and purpose of Día de Los Muertos. So, Mira Loma Spanish Honor Society had its focus on presenting in classes with respect to Día de Los Muertos and also had an information booth on the day where classes were present outside.
Lulu – That was very insightful. Thank you so much for this!
Pictures courtesy of Mauro Guerra-Reynosa