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Día de los Muertos / Day of the Dead: Guide

Dia de los Muertos

marigold flowerWhat is Día de los Muertos?

The celebration known as El Día de los Muertos has various names used in diverse areas of Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, including: El Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased); El Día de los Santos (Day of the Saints); Todos Santos (All Saints); El Día de las Ánimas (Day of the Souls); and El Día de las Ánimas Benditas (Day of the Blessed Souls). A fusion of pre-Columbian and Catholic rituals for remembering the deceased, the celebration is observed on November 1 and 2 (the Roman Catholic dates of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day) in varied ways depending on the country or region within a country. Most people in the United States (and in Mexico) assume that the celebration is "uniquely" Mexican; however, Day of the Dead is an important holiday throughout Latin America.

U.S. celebrations are modeled on Mexican traditions and, as the Latin American country with the largest tourism industry, Mexico's Day of the Dead is best known globally. But, if you travel to Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, or the Andean regions of Columbia and Argentina, for example, you will see thousands of people visiting and picnicking in cemeteries, decorating graves, holding candlelight vigils by family tombs, serenading the dead via itinerant musicians, creating altars in memory of departed loved ones, and walking in processions. Thus, the celebration is not uniquely Mexican, although Mexico certainly has unique aspects of the celebration such as its famous sugar skulls and calavera (skeleton) imagery.  Continue . . .

Book Collection

Day of the Dead in the USA, Second Edition
The Day of the Dead : a visual compendium
Day of the Dead Folk Art
Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca
The Day of the Dead : a pictorial archive of Día de los Muertos
On the path of marigolds : living traditions of México's Day of the Dead = En el camino de los cempasúchitles : tradiciones vivas del Día de los Muertos de México
Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon
Day of the Dead: Día De Los Muertos
The Story Behind Day of the Dead
Skulls to the living, bread to the dead : [the day of the dead in Mexico and beyond]

Day of the Dead across Latin American Cultures


Far from being a morbid event, Day of Dead emphasizes remembrance of past lives and expresses celebration of the continuity of life.  This acknowledgement of life’s continuity has roots which go back to some of Mexico’s oldest civilizations including the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, and Purépecha.  The Aztecs also celebrated Day of the Dead, although earlier —August— on the current calendar.

Local festivities and traditions vary from place to place, although the ofrendas are the focal point of the celebrations during the festive period.  Mexico City hosts a large and elaborate procession downtown, and provincial towns and cities hold religious processions to mark the occasion.  It’s currently fashionable for participants to have their face painted to emulate Catrinas.

From Films On Demand database:

El Salvador

Salvadorans honor the dead in various traditional celebrations such as El Día de los Difuntos or El Día de los Fieles Difuntos (Day of the Deceased) and La Calabiuza. Learn more about these celebrations and share...

  • El Día de los Fieles Difuntos - The Day of the Faithful Dead is one of the dates of great importance for Salvadorans, who go to cemeteries to remember their loved ones. During this tradition, Salvadorans usually buy wreaths and arrangements, natural and artificial flowers, as well as other materials that serve to decorate the graves. With this activity the cemeteries are filled with a lot of color. A family brings paint, brushes, brooms, among other items, to clean and renovate the graves and niches of their loved ones. Even private individuals are observed working that day cleaning and decorating the tombstones. Musical groups, especially mariachis, are not lacking in cemeteries, where many people request the songs that, when they were alive, were the favorites of their loved ones (Orellana). 
  • La Calabiuza - La Calabiuza is an El Salvadoran celebration that takes place every year on November 1 st in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador. The celebration is over 100 years old and blends the Catholic holy day of All Saints Day (brought over by the Spaniards in the 1500s) with Indigenous traditions. One of the main attractions of La Calabiuza is the procession of the carretas chillonas (shrieking carts) through the main streets of Tonacatepeque. These hand drawn carts symbolize the journey the dead take into the afterlife and are decorated with skulls, torches, and homages to characters from local myths and legends. People of all ages march through the streets dressed as skeletons, demons, and popular characters from mythology chanting “Angeles somos, del cielo venimos pidiendo ayote para nuestro camino, mino, mino.” (“We are angels, come from heaven asking for squash for our journey”). Ayote con miel (squash with honey) is handed out to participants and onlookers as the celebration continues through the night. Although celebrated at the same time of year, La Calabiuza is not El Salvadoran Halloween; it is a time to remember lost loved ones and to honor El Salvadoran history and culture (National Hispanic Cultural Center).

NOTE: Some of the links are in Spanish. To read in English, right click on the page in Spanish and select Translate to English.

La Calabuiza


To the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, death is considered the passage to a new life, therefore, the deceased are buried with personal objects that would be used in the afterlife. In other words, this festival does not only celebrate death but also the cycle of life. From skulls to toys, indigenous people use them to decorate tombs and make the remembrance of the death of their loved ones easier to bear.

In Guatemala, another popular tradition that takes place during the Day of the Dead is the Kite Festival, many of which are held across the country in big, open spaces where people gather to show off their kites, lift them up, and make them compete to honor the dead. What makes Kite Festivals in Guatemala unique is the size of the kites. People spend all year long building them and coming up with the design, many of which are 40 feet or larger, and the spectacular displays fill the air over cemeteries across the country (LUC).

kite festival


Bolivians buff up the skulls of their dearly departed to mark annual ritual. They celebrated on Sunday an ancient tradition rooted in indigenous practices where people adorn and honour skulls, called "natitas", which they believe bring them good fortune and protection.

The natitas spend most of the year indoors, but are traditionally decorated and paraded to the cemetery a week after All Saints Day.

"This tradition occurs on Nov. 8 because it is the Day of the Souls, the Day of the Skulls. We celebrate [the dead] because they give us many miracles. They take care of us, they protect us, the people who are devoted to them," said Leticia Plaza, who joined the celebration of the skulls. Friends and family adorn the skulls with hats and flowers. They give them food and even cigarettes during the festivities. Even the skulls of unidentified deceased take part in the party, said participant Patricia Llave."They are the forgotten souls, they are the souls that don't have flowers. Every Nov. 8, we remove them from their tomb so that we can be with them and share this celebration with them," she said (CBC).

pan de muerto

Day of the Dead is celebrated in many Latin American cultures and cultures around the world to honor the departed. Below is more information about these celebrations...

NOTE: Some of the links are in Spanish. To read in English, right click on the page in Spanish and select Translate to English.

dia de los difuntos

Special thanks to EOPS for their collaborative efforts. To access the resources provided via the Chaffey College Library's databases, enter your MyChaffey Portal login information, when prompted.

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