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A Quick Lesson About November 2nd - What Exactly is Day of the Dead and Why You Should Care
by The Garcia 360° Planning Department


The cultural and religious differences between Mexico and the United States play an active role in the manner in which death and grief are handled. Mexico is a country heavily influenced by its pre-Hispanic ancestry and by the Catholic Church. To Mexicans, death has a singular sense: at times it is a common tradition that hinges on its Pre-Hispanic roots; at other times, it is a display of memories, offerings, and prayers.

Aztec/Mexican Pre-Hispanic tradition holds that Quezalcoatl, the great Mesoamerican creator god, descended into the ninth deepest level of the underworld to retrieve the bones of Man and Woman and accidentally stumbled and dropped them when he returned to earth. (The bones were there as the remnants of the previous beings who had inhabited the world before its destruction.) When he stumbled and spilled the bones, a nearby quail nibbled them. As a result the new race of humans was flawed with mortality. In the Pre-Hispanic era that revolved around this tale of creation; life had no function except to become ready to return to death, where it originated. Therefore, death was an occasion that the Pre-Hispanic people awaited. This was shown through their ornamentation, calendars, paintings, figurines, etc.

The idea of salvation for the Pre-Hispanics was collective - everyone returned to their origin. But the Christian tradition that the Spanish brought with them was individual - salvation was dependent on individual righteousness. Despite the efforts of the Catholic Church to completely convert the Indians, many of those newly baptized found a way to incorporate their old traditions with the requirements that the Catholic Church placed on them. From this came the superstitions involving ghosts and witches which later became part of Mexican folklore. Nevertheless, the idea of life arising out of death remained a lasting belief within the Pre-Hispanic, and later Mexican, tradition despite the efforts of the Spanish. It is this idea, mixed with Catholic beliefs, that allows Mexican culture to be open and festive about death, at least once a year.

The Day of the Dead, or All Soul's Day (November 2nd), is a reflection of the Mexican attitude towards death: it is a fiesta with song, food, laughter, and dancing with Death itself. This festival is one of the most important celebrations in the yearly cycle and is especially so in rural areas where poverty is often overlooked to prepare for it.

As one moves up the economical and social ladder, the formal Catholic beliefs begin to dominate. Although it is disputed exactly how the tradition began, there is significant proof that traces back to the Pre-Hispanic town of Míxquic, Southeast of Mexico City, in the Tláhuac region. It is an agricultural town with about 20,000 people. The name of the town has been derived by some from the word Míquixtly, which means death. Míxquic 's history begins at the time of the Aztec expansion. When the Spanish invaded and converted the town, the Indians held fast to many of their own traditions, one of them being rituals to their Cult of the Dead. This celebration that takes place on November 2, in Míxquic is believed to be the origin of the Mexican Day of the Dead.

The traditional festivities take place over three days. At noon on October 31, 12 bells are consecutively and solemnly rung at the local church to announce the arrival of the souls of dead children. By then, each home that has lost a child should have a table laid out with white flowers, glasses of water, and a plate of salt. Each candle [on the table] represents a dead child. In addition, little figures and toys made of clay are left for the children. The candles are lit and incense is burned. After 7:00 PM, dinner is served for the children's souls consisting of bread, curds and whey or hot chocolate, and tamales made from candied fruit.

On November 1, between 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM, breakfast is served to the children. This consists of curds and whey, hot chocolate, more bread, and fruit. At 12:00 PM, the 12 solemn bells are rung again to announce the departure of the children back to their graves, followed by another 12 rings to announce the arrival of the adult souls.

At home, their tables should be laid out with yellow cempasúchil flowers (similar to marigolds). Black candleholders with large candles should be placed in the house. The amount of water and salt is dependent on the number of adult deaths in each home.

At 12:00 AM, the bells are rung again, this time uniting the family to offer gifts and to pray the Rosary for the spirits of their dead. After the Rosary, each relative takes a candle, lights it, and places it on the altar specifically dedicated to that dead person. Then they proceed to pray an "Our Father.'" Finally, one candle is lit for the forgotten souls. At this time, bread, fruit, preserves, and tamales are placed on the table. If there isn't enough room on the table, then a rug is placed on the floor to accommodate all of the dead.

Chairs are distributed and all the dead are seated ready to eat. Some people go as far as to make a clean bed for them to rest on. Their old belongings, including clothing, cigarettes, bottles of liquor, and matches, are placed at their altars. After this, children ages seven to 12 get together, take a bell and a bag, and go from house to house praying for the souls. When they are finished, the owner is supposed to share the offerings. The children sing, "Sir, my tamal, and please don't give the bad stuff from the table." At 12:00 PM, on November 2, the 12 bells ring once more to announce the departure of the adult souls back into their graves.

During the day, the tombs of the dead are cleaned and adorned. If it is the grave of a child, white flowers are placed on it. If it is the tomb of an adult, yellow flowers make their home there. At 5:00 PM the family reunites at the graves, taking incense and each lights a candle to help the souls see their way back to the underworld. On the 3rd of November, there begins the interchange of offerings between relatives and friends. Each tells the other, "Here is what the dead left for you." Then they proceed to talk about the festivities this year. That is how the celebration ends after having brought joy and peace and establishing a bridge between life and death, past and present.

The Day of the Dead, in recent years, has taken on significance beyond the sacred and entered into the realm of iconic art and become a symbol of pride. As advertisers, we must begin to explore how this, like many other Hispanic traditions, are moving away from private ceremony into the public realm. This can allow us to find relevant communication points that are more direct than the larger and potentially inefficient events where a smaller company, or one with limited funds, can get lost.

As always, it is crucial to have a better understanding of those things that any targeted community finds important so that we can understand how to develop deeper relationships with that population. One key to the case of Day of the Dead, is that this is not a somber holiday in the Hispanic community. It is a day of respect and honor, and a celebration of life within the realistic perspective that death is part of life. Day of the Dead is not to be skirted or ignored as we look for channels to speak to Hispanics. It should be seen as a great community outlet to honor and acknowledge that in many ways, the Latino community has a deep appreciation for our time spent on earth and in the beyond.


The Author


Luis Garcia is the founder and managing director of Garcia 360°, a San Antonio-based Hispanic communications agency specializing in integrated strategies. Garcia 360° helps clients assess opportunities in the Hispanic market, prepare services for their consumers/influencers, develop marketing plans, and creative to achieve business goals.

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