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On November 1, el Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—is celebrated throughout Mexico and other countries in Central and South America. Here in the United States, it is widely celebrated in areas with large Mexican immigrant populations, like California, Texas, and Arizona.

To mark the holiday, Intermediate Spanish students will display traditional altars from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, November 1, on the first floor of Hodges Library. The Spanish Club invites students to bring a photograph of a deceased loved one to Johnson-Ward Pedestrian Walkway at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and make crafts to serve as an ofrenda—an offering.

Rossy Toledo, Spanish lecturer in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures, shared some information with Tennessee Today about the holiday’s history and traditions, and ways to mark the day in meaningful ways.

Where and when did el Día de los Muertos start?

RT: The holiday’s origins can be traced to the conceptualization of the afterlife from many cultures: Toltec, Olmec, Mayans, and Aztecs. When people died, their soul separated from the flesh and it went to live in the afterworld. Thus there was a cyclical nature of life and death. So this tradition is a celebration of death, not fear of death. Death was simply a continuation of life on another plane of existence.

Mictecacihuatl, from the Codex Borgia
Mictecacihuatl, from the Codex Borgia

Once a year the Aztecs held a festival celebrating the death of their ancestors while honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld or the Lady of the Dead. The Aztecs believed that the deceased preferred to be celebrated rather than mourned, so during the festival they first honored the deceased children, then those who passed away as adults. Before the [Spanish] conquest—early 16th century—the festival lasted for almost an entire month, starting around the end of July to mid-August. After the conquest, the dates moved to November 1 and 2, matching the All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day Catholic celebrations.

How is el Día de los Muertos celebrated in the modern world?

RT: The celebrations take place both in public and private spaces. For example, museums, schools, universities, private companies, and other institutions set up altars to honor their favorite famous personalities: public officials, past presidents, philanthropists, and community leaders as well as actors, singers, and loved ones. 

At home and in public spaces people create altars that represent an offering to honor their loved ones. The preparations start a few days before, gathering the items to set up on the altar, like pan de muerto—a sweet bread that is specially baked for the occasion and decorated with sugar and bone-like figures—sugar skulls (calaveras), orange marigolds (cempazuchitl flowers), candles, and personal items that the deceased liked.

An altar to Cecil the lion from the 2015 Day of the Dead celebration at Hodges Library.

Families prepare the favorite dishes and beverages of the deceased and set them on the altar. On November 1 and 2, family and friends gather for dinner while they share stories of their honored loved ones. This is a way to happily remember the person being honored without the grief that surrounds the day the person passed away.

On Día de los Muertos imagery being used at Halloween:

RT: I believe the Day of the Dead is a wonderful celebration that is very different from Halloween. During Halloween, the dead are mocked with scary images and tricks and practical jokes that could be frightening. It is not a religious or spiritual holiday. The use of scary costumes is discouraged during the Day of the Dead celebration. 


The only customary costume is the calavera face-painting. The calavera represents people living in the underworld. Men and woman alike paint their faces to attend the celebrations and go to the cemeteries.

The cemetery visitation is one part of the celebration that has not taken place here in the United States. The US culture does not accept death as a natural part of life to the same extent, so celebrating at a cemetery is a very upsetting or morbid concept to many. Cemeteries are generally considered sad. There’s nothing past that initial funeral and flowers on the grave that is associated with cemeteries. That’s why I think the Day of the Dead is so healthy and good for us. We need to learn accept death and not only cry about the deceased but laugh, remember and celebrate.