View segment on Amalia Mesa-Bains. Produced by Spark for This Week in Northern California. Original air date: October 2009. (Running Time: 6:08)
The beginning of November marks the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It is an occasion for people to celebrate and remember friends and family members who have passed on. Spark explores the meanings and history of Día de los Muertos with internationally renowned Chicana artist Amalia Mesa-Bains as she teaches a class on the holiday’s traditions at Cal State University, Monterey Bay.
The roots of Día de los Muertos combine both pagan and Christian traditions. The celebration can be traced back to a variety of indigenous ancient festivals, including one dedicated to the Aztec queen of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. It also coincides with the Catholic All Souls’ Day, celebrated on November 2, when family members pray for the souls of the dead that have not yet been granted entrance to heaven.
Central to Day of the Dead is the act of remembrance in which loved ones reenact their most cherished memories of the dead. The holiday is joyful and celebratory, but also offers an occasion for participants to connect with their ancestors and the past.
One of the key practices of the holiday is the construction of altars, or ofrendas, dedicated to friends and family members who are being remembered. Altars normally include an assortment of offerings to the dead, such as bread, salt, incense, water, candles, and flowers — traditionally, Mexican marigolds — alongside photographs of the deceased. Other offerings include cherished items of clothing and other objects reminiscent of those who have passed and brightly decorated skulls made of sugar.
In teaching these traditions, Mesa-Bains helps her students get in touch with their own histories. Although more than half of Monterey County is of Mexican origin, the tradition of making ofrendas for Day of the Dead has been in great part abandoned as families came to the United States. For some, the tradition is even at odds with the practices of the Catholic Church. But by learning the traditions of Día de los Muertos, many of Mesa-Bains’s students are able to reconnect with cultural practices and their own past.