Dia De Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a celebration of loss, remembrance, family and culture that typically takes place from October 31 to November 2nd. The holiday originated with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, but it’s recognized all over the world and celebrated differently in each country, much like Carnival.
The variety of alterations and unique spins to Dia De Los Muertos by the Hispanic and Latino diaspora is nothing short of beautiful, and in this day of cultural appreciation and respectful learning, it’s more than possible to incorporate some or most of their traditions into your own– even if you aren’t Afrolatino. You might be surprised to learn that a lot of Dia De Los Muertos traditions align with your own.
One of the most reverent parts of Dia De Los Muertos involves creating ofrendas, or altars, for lost loved ones. Pictures, important documents, and even sentimental things like toys, clothing and favorite objects are featured on altars that are usually set up in high traffic areas of the house, and decorated with symbolic things we’ll cover soon.
Making an altar is easier than it might sound; I still have the one I made in high school Spanish class for my father. All you need is something to serve as a free-standing base that you can fill with items, like an old Amazon package or a shoebox, and things to surround and decorate your ofrenda with. You can drape, glue and secure things to your initial base, make your own homemade versions of decorations like papel picado, add layers and get as fancy as you want with it–or not! With Dia De Los Muertos, it’s the effort that truly counts, not the flashiness, although that is part of the fun.
Eating to remember: Sugar skulls, Pan De Muerto, etc.
From personal experience, the tastiest parts of celebrating Dia De Los Muertos include making and eating the symbolic treats that pay homage to the ancestors. Calaveras, or sugar skulls made to decorate altars and graves (and later to be munched on) are easy-to-make with a simple mixture of sugar, meringue powder and water. Much like the altars, calaveras can be decorated however which way you feel best honors your family, traditions and the memory of your loved ones.
Recipes abound online and on Tiktok for how to make the skulls, as well as other cultural foods like Pan De Muerto you don’t want to learn how to make your own skulls or Pan De Muerto, you can still put your cooking skills to use to honor lost loved ones. If it’s been a few years since you made or tasted Granny’s special sweet potato pie, pull out the baking tins and give the recipe a try to keep her memory sweet in your heart. The idea is to reflect on the sweetness of life, made sweeter and more precious by how quickly the taste can leave us.
Stopping by: Grave clearing, holding vigils.
This tradition might be the easiest way to start observing Dia De Los Muertos right away, since most Black families already make a habit of visiting gravesites to keep them clean and “check-in” with interred loved ones. In Mexico, some families camp out for multiple nights and have a “graveside party,” bringing everything from musical instruments and stereos to blankets and plates of the deceased’s favorite food to keep them company.
For those who regularly visit graves on special occasions like my mom and uncles, congratulations! Keep doing that, and you’re celebrating Dia De Los Muertos in part already. If that wasn’t something you practiced, then Dia De Los Muerto is the perfect opportunity to start. Sitting at your granddad’s grave with a tea light and sharing a sip of whiskey with him, and maybe a small conversation, does wonders for the spirit and sense of closure.
Decorating with Marigolds
My mother likes to fill the house with seasonal flowers throughout the year, so Dia De Los Muertos is a great time to honor my dad’s birthday, life and our family culture (I’m half Dominican, so my siblings and I identify as Afrolatino), while also keeping our decor culturally relevant.
In Mexican and Latino culture, the Marigold is sacred to Dia De Los Muertos and any celebrations dealing with death and remembrance. It’s believed that the heavy, sweet scent of the blooms helps guide spirits wanting to visit from the land of the dead to their loved ones, ofrendas, graves, and etcetera. You can find fresh marigolds at flower shops and stands all around Detroit, and many of the vendors are Black or Latino as an extra bonus.
Hosting a celebration of life” party
Not every city and community hosts public parades and festivities for everyone to remember those they’ve lost, but if you’re comfortable with it and other people you know want to collectively celebrate Dia De Los Muertos, consider hosting a small, intimate gathering for that exact purpose. You can try your hand at all the above traditions, or not–the whole point is to be together, giving honor and reverence to those who can’t be here.
It’s like a wake, but celebrated every year and purposefully cheerful. We’d suggest holding something like that outside though, or in a well-ventilated venue– COVID restrictions, and all of that. Getting sick while honoring the lives of loved ones lost would be the opposite of “celebrating life.”