Once a celebration largely unknown outside of Mexico, Día de los Muertos has gone mainstream in the United States.
Today the holiday’s symbols – especially ornate sugar skull designs – adorn everything from U.S. postage stamps to classic Vans sneakers. Even Ken and Barbie can be seen sporting traditional calaca (skeleton) costumes and Target sells merchandise for the day.
“Movies like [Pixar’s 2017] Coco made people more familiar with the holiday, but they aren’t as familiar with the meaning behind the rituals and the importance of Día de los Muertos in our culture,” said Rutgers-New Brunswick senior and president of the Mexican-American Student Association (MASA), Axel Caballero.
In honor of the holiday, MASA is partnering with the Center for Latino Arts and Culture at Rutgers-New Brunswick (CLAC) and the New Brunswick community organization Lazos America Unida to host a Día de los Muertos celebration tomorrow.
“I want students of both Mexican and non-Mexican descent to learn and have the opportunity to engage with our culture,” said Caballero. “We want to stretch it to as many interested cultures as possible – not just to learn about the holiday, but to enjoy and partake in our traditions.”
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, draws on pre-Hispanic Mexican and Spanish Roman Catholic traditions intended to facilitate the return of departed souls to the Earth.
The holiday revolves around ritual preparations by family to visit the graves of loved ones, the preparation of a home or community ofrenda, or altar, and the laying of marigold flower petals and other handicrafts, said Carlos Fernandez, director of CLAC.
The event kicks off Friday (Nov. 4) with two sugar skull craft workshops from 2-3:30 p.m. and 4-5:30 p.m. at CLAC's offices, 172 College Avenue,New Brunswick, led by Lazos America Unida director Teresa Vivar, who will discuss the origins of the sugar skull (calavera de azucar) tradition in Mexican culture and how it has been adapted in the United States. The celebration continues Friday evening from 7-9 p.m. with a traditional altar exhibit and dance and musical performances. MASA is also facilitating a calavera (skeleton) workshop as part of SparkNight at the Zimmerli Museum on Nov. 3.
What Vivar wants to participants to understand is that Day of the Dead is not a Mexican Halloween – regardless of how brands market the holiday.
"This tradition acknowledges the importance of honoring our ancestors' legacy, their teachings and our duty to perpetuate this community event as part of an organic way to deal with the physical death of a loved one," Vivar said. "It's part of cultural identity and very important to show respect to many folk artists that handmade each element we observe in an altar. It is important to support our cultural identity rights by purchasing these items directly from an artisan and not from a big corporation.”
Preparing an ofrenda, or altar, to honor deceased relatives plays a central role in the celebration of Día de los Muertos. Altars or shrines can be built in homes or in the community and typically include photos, mementos, candles, marigolds and favorite foods and beverages of the departed.
“The altar honors those who have passed away to show them we haven’t forgotten them and they are still important in our lives,” said Caballero, who adds that the color and scent of the flowers along with the candlelight are supposed to guide loved ones to the altar. "That’s why we put out their favorite foods and drinks, because they are hungry from the journey home.”
Pan de Muerto/Bread of the Dead
Pan de Muerto is a popular treat enjoyed by the living during Día de los Muertos and left on altars to nourish the souls of the departed after their long journey home. Pan de Muerto is baked locally in New Brunswick at Gaby's Bakery, said Fernandez.
Calavera de Azucar/Sugar Skulls
Traditionally, sugar skulls are created as ornamental gifts for children and family members during Día de los Muertos. Maria Vivar will be making small (non-edible) skulls in advance of the CLAC event for students to decorate during the workshop. Unlike the ghoulish skulls and skeletons associated with Halloween, these brightly colored skulls represent the departed souls in the circle of life.
“It’s to celebrate their lives,” said Caballero. “We don’t think of the dead like they are gone forever, but more that they are always going to be with us.”